"White God" director on politics, cinema and directing canines
Like a ferocious guerrilla army, a pack of unchained dogs overrun Budapest in Hungarian director Kornel Mundruczo's "White God." The movie, one of the year's best foreign films, opens at The Nuart in Santa Monica this Friday. A wild parable that feels like "Watership Down" meets Franz Kafka, the film is a dark and moving tale seen completely through the eyes of the mutt Hagen and his owner, a young girl named Lili (Zsofia Psotta). When the state requires mutts be registered lest their owners face a fine, Lili's father forces her to abandon Hagen in the streets. He undergoes a searing, violent journey through the Budapest underworld where he meets other street dogs before landing in the hands of an imposing man who uses Hagen for bloody dogfights. Like a four-legged Spartacus, Hagen soon unites with other abandoned canines to unleash themselves on their human masters.
On a Friday afternoon Mundruczo, a soft-spoken director with an intellectual air, explained how the vision for "White God" came to be. While working on the theatrical adaptation of a South African play, a line about a dog shelter inspired Mundruczo to visit dog shelters in his native Hungary. "I went to a [dog] shelter and was completely touched. What I found there I never expected. It was shameful. They hide the dogs behind the fences. The same day I went to my scriptwriter and said 'I really want to make a movie about dogs in Budapest," said Mundruczo.
Hungary remains a country haunted by the historical ghosts of its recent past including the 1956 Hungarian Revolution and the uprising against the Soviet system in the 1980s. For Mundruczo it was natural for "White God" to be shaded by both the past and Europe's present. Even the film's main musical thread is composer Franz Liszt's "Hungarian Rhapsody."
"We have a huge history and for example the buildings of Budapest tell that history. In the opening scene where you see those classical buildings and the angry dogs appearing, there is meaning there," explained Mundruczo. "This movie reflects contemporary life. We have a tradition of intolerance and racism yet at the same time Hungarians are always rebels and always seek freedom. It's a part of our soul." For Mundruczo, the rebel dogs of the film are a metaphor for minorities everywhere struggling against the oppressive powers that be. "It looks like it's just about dogs but it's about society and nature."
For a European filmmaker like Mundruczo, it is hard not to be influenced by the current social battles being fought in Europe as a result of the euro crisis and the return of radical politics." After the economic crisis, there is a huge moral crisis all over Europe, including in Hungary. It's a society loaded with a lot of fear, existential fear," said Mundruczo. "There is a lot of extremity right now. Of course this movie would like to reflect this change, and how everything changed around us. How there's less freedom than before. It is a Hungarian movie with a European soul."
One of the great achievements of this elegant yet fierce movie is how Mundruczo and his team manage to turn the canine stars into real characters whose personalities vibrate off their stares, movements and sounds. "It was really difficult in the beginning and really easy later," said the director, "because if you would like to control them, if you would like to just watch them as adult humans then that's not how you can work with the animals." For Mundruczo it took much patience and as filming continued, the dogs seemed to change along with the filmmakers and adjusted more and more to the film set. "We usually use them [dogs] as objects, especially in movies. We can see their emotions at home, but usually not in movies."
One heart-wrenching scene features Hagen being forced into his first dogfight. "That scene was more difficult to create in the editing room," revealed Mundruczo when emphasizing how the animals were never injured or actually made to fight, instead the visceral power of a violent scene was purely constructed in the editing. When asked if he himself is a dog lover, Mundruczo immediately said "Of course."
Next on his plate, Mundruczo is working on the adaptation of a Russian novel trilogy and an original script about refugees in modern Europe. The themes of those lording over society and the underdogs' will to fight back are a running current in his work, as made clear when Mundruczo explained what the title of "White God" is all about. "The title comes from a Kurdish word, it is about the responsibility of the majority. The film is the perspective of the dogs, and we are the white god. I was the white god when I was standing in the shelter and I would like to criticize myself and our responsibility when telling stories like this."