FILM REVIEW OF “WHITE GOD”
Dylan Hallingstad O’Brien
Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó’s White God (2015) is a powerful film due equally to its adept depiction of a mass canine revolt against humans and nuanced screening of human-animal relations. The film synthesizes and confounds various traditional themes in human-nonhuman friendship stories, notably coming of age and “journey home” narratives. Beyond playing with the traditional imagery of “man” and his “best friend,” White God uses unique cinematography and thematic elements ranging from friendship to violence in order to interrogate the relationality and identity of both humans and nonhumans in society. Despite ethical issues that arise from using nonhuman animals in the film, White God advances and questions the trajectory of representing nonhuman animals, specifically dogs, in film.
White God’s narrative begins with teenager Lili (Zsófia Psotta) transferred to her bachelor father’s (Sándor Zsótér) care by her mother (Lili Horváth), with a surprise guest, the mixed-breed dog, Hagen (played by Luke and Body). Hagen quickly grates on the nerves of Lili’s father and when an officer informs him that a bill taxing mixed-breed dogs has been passed, Hagen is ejected from the home to live on the street. Following this, the viewer is shown scenes of Lili and her father’s relationship, as well as Lili’s search for Hagen. These scenes are mixed with Hagen’s struggle to survive and his eventual capture by a dogfighter recently released from prison. Under this dogfighter’s direction, Hagen is morphed into a violent fighter, culminating in a deeply disturbing simulated dogfight. Following this fight, Hagen escapes from captivity and life as a fighting dog, but is eventually captured by animal control. Hagen responds and rebels with violence, followed by other mixed-breed dogs impounded by humans. The film reaches its climax when Hagen finds Lili in the same location where the film opened: the slaughterhouse where Lili’s father works. Hagen chases Lili, intent on killing her, until Lili plays the trumpet for him (as she used to before her father threw Hagen out of the home). This prompts Hagen and the pack of dogs behind him to lie down alongside Lili and her father—with animal control no doubt soon on their way.
Ambivalence—explored in ways that trouble the line between acting and “natural” behavior—is woven deep into the fabric of White God. While this is a strategy that could cause some to avoid watching this film, ambivalence makes White God a remarkably important and successful film. Numerous scenes in the film use a rapidly shifting camera, whether in the butcher shop or the pound, in order to show many dogs barking and staring at each other. For the viewer, scenes such as these prevent a sense of being intentionally led through the narrative by the camera. Instead, the onus of assembling a cohesive narrative is left to the viewer. These scenes are also deeply ambivalent in that they do not offer human language. The viewer is repeatedly bombarded with moments of Hagen’s multiple imprisonments and clips of communication between dogs that leave gaps in the narrative; this forces the audience to fill in these gaps based on their own observations, rather than providing an obvious conclusion.
The story of White God is also ambivalent in so far as its confounding of the dog’s journey home. The adolescent bildungsroman narrative relies on a fluctuation between the viewpoints of Lili and Hagen; both are compared and contrasted, with neither seemingly privileged. Such a directorial decision is notable for how it places Hagen’s experience on equal footing with Lili’s journey, and posits an understanding of both humans and nonhumans as having to acquire the skills to navigate the complex structure of human-dominated society. Hagen’s movements through human society solidifies such a reading. For instance, in the violent climax of the film he retreads his steps, demonstrating an acquired navigation of society and Hagen’s multifaceted integration into and menacing of society. The mixture of violence and human society is powerful, as it resists the traditional “violent nature” presumption of films that depict nonhuman animals. It does this by showing dogs aiding each other and collectively committing their violence towards humans in carefully calculated ways. Past fantasy narratives using violence to background rounded, usually anthropomorphized, nonhuman characters have often shown violence as occurring in nature, or violence as a natural setting for nonhuman animals to be transcended, whether in Bambi (2005), The Lion King (2003), or Watership Down (2008). White God is effective in situating violence as flowing throughout human society, rather than as alien to or intruding into it. Furthermore, Hagen’s gradual transformation—from a timid and caring dog to a killer of humans and leader of canine revolt—contrasts films that show (nonhuman) nature as naturally violent.
White God departs from past cinematic representations of nonhuman animals in its complication of how nonhumans are depicted, focusing on the dogs’ experiences and interactions. White God uses unsteady cameras to follow the action of Hagen and other dogs, creating an atmosphere of rawness and instability that leaves the viewer on edge. Moreover, the camera frequently adjusts to the height of Hagen and other dogs, which allows us to share their perspective without taking a first-person point-of-view. By persistently having dogs or humans foreground the main action of other humans and nonhumans in the scene, the viewer is made to feel like a voyeur; in this sense, the film is reminiscent of the unsettling commentary on voyeurism in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò (2008). In being presented with the numerous exploitative practices and deplorable material conditions experienced by dogs in this film, the audience is confronted with their broad complicity in creating the abhorrent conditions that White God depicts.
Unlike some of the fantasy narratives of a nonhuman animal’s “journey home,” White Dog does not use a mono-optic, first-person viewpoint. While some might contend that adopting Hagen’s perspective would have led to a more radical representation of dogs’ lives, such a viewpoint could be essentializing and misrepresentative. Such a perspective would presume to understand dogs’ concerns rather than depicting the material conditions in which they live and inviting the viewer to speculate as to the dogs’ feelings and reactions in a given scenario. As such, White God superbly demonstrates the importance of not presuming a nonhuman animal’s experience. Through its ambivalence and fluid viewpoint, the film unsettles the viewer and provides the foundation to question a number of taken-for-granted interactions. White God depicts inter-canine conflict and shows that different dog characters have individual goals—some of which include fighting one another. That the filmmaker refrains from delineating how dogs feel recalls Houser’s (2013) argument that we should adopt a perspective that includes a multitude of possible nonhuman animal viewpoints. By levying multiplicity and creativity, Houser argues, we can avoid imposing understandings of animal lives that are not ours.
White God is also deeply effective in complicating the screening of the nonhuman by frequently displaying various dogs interacting with each other in humans’ absence. Ambivalence is forefront in such scenes; it is not clear whether or not the barking and gazes of the dogs are orchestrated by animal trainers or “natural” interactions between the dogs. Interspecies interactions in the film are often complex, playing off of human assumptions regarding nonhuman animals and then contradicting such expectations. For example, early in Hagen’s journey he encounters a human attempting to capture him, licks them to lower their guard, and then runs away. The intentional juxtaposition of imagery such as Hagen being led into the pound to be killed, and moments later, a scene of humans walking the same corridor looking to adopt dogs, contrast each other for the viewer via a camera that persistently switches point-of-view. The ambivalent and variable viewpoint of the film puts the viewer on constant alert for a shift, consistently questioning the taken-for-granted interpretation of interspecies relations. At its most effective moments, the fluidity of the camera contributes to a narrative deconstruction of dichotomized humanity/animality by depicting shared conflict and interests alongside complex social environments shaped by multiple species.
While the film does imagine quite a subversive revolt of dogs against their human exploiters, the film does not forthrightly address that this violent revolt is created by, and devised for, a specifically human gaze in the way it does for other issues pertaining to the dogs. Given the complex engagement of the film with identity and seeing, both for humans and nonhumans, it is somewhat perplexing why the most foundational issues of representation for a film such as White God remain unaddressed. In particular, the end credits that specifically note the “training” of the dogs make later moments thanking them as “colleagues” seem artificial (specifically when noting that the dogs were “owned and supplied by”), while also demonstrating the limits of self-reflexivity within the film. This lack of self-reflexivity is also particularly puzzling as after witnessing a dog being trained by a human in the beginning of the film, Lili remarks to Hagen that she would never do that to him.
One final aspect of White God that is important to note is that all of the dogs were re-homed following filming. In light of this, the politics of using nonhuman animal bodies to make the film are muddled even further, as there was a benefit for the dogs in being re-homed instead of possibly being euthanized. This re-homing complicates a critical reading of the film, as using the dogs as unpaid actors and a vehicle for a human narrative about them could be criticized, but the fact that they were re-homed and given a (presumably) higher quality of life makes it difficult to say that there was no material benefit for the dogs appearing in the film. Moreover, as the dogs were largely mixed-breed and without “homes,” their representation of fictional mixed-breed street dogs is also perhaps apropos, as opposed to a Hollywood production making use of nonhuman animals highly trained, living in captivity.
White God is an important film, as it rejects subject-object dichotomy, essentializing viewpoints, and the denial of nonhuman subjectivities found in past nonhuman animal journey narratives. Yet perhaps the most powerful aspect of the film is that it challenges the viewer to see human-nonhuman relationships as mired in ambiguity. While White God may not deconstruct human-nonhuman relationships in a fully self-reflexive way, the film advances the trajectory of depicting nonhuman animals in fiction coupled with a production that arguably benefitted the dogs that participated by re-homing them. The film’s grappling with ambiguity alongside the politics of representation moves us closer to a critical environment in which fictional narratives about nonhuman animal are more rigorously questioned.
Bambi. Directed by David Hand. 1942. Burbank, CA: Walt Disney Home Video, 2005. DVD.
Houser, Marie. “Bodies Of Literature: Fiction Is Activism.” Our Hen House, 2013. Accessed April 24, http://www.ourhenhouse.org/2013/09/bodies-of-literature-fiction-is-activism/
Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom. Directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini. 1975. France and Italy: Criterion Collection, 2008, DVD.
The Lion King. Directed by Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff. 1994. United States: Walt Disney Home Video, 2003, DVD.
Watership Down. Directed by Martin Rosen. 1978. England: Warner Home Video, 2008, DVD.
White God. Directed by Kornél Mundruczó. 2014. Hungary: Magnolia Home Entertainment, 2015, DVD.
Dylan Hallingstad O’Brien holds a BA in East Asian and Global Studies from Hamline University. His research interests centre on representations of nonhuman animals in popular culture, culture and plant-based cuisine, and postmodern and poststructuralist theories of animality.