FilmWhite God: Revenge horror, fairy tales, and a dog revolution in Budapest
Hopes&Fears talks to Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó about his new film White God.
A writer, director and actor who has shown three films at the Cannes Film Festival. White God won the Un Certain Regard prize in 2014.
Mundruczó was born in Hungary and began his film career in 1998.
“This is a crisis movie; there's really a moral crisis in society,” says Kornél Mundruczó. For White God, “There was no metaphor at first. I just wanted to tell a story about a dog ... Because I went to a dog pound.”
Back then, Mundruczó was staging a play based on African author J.M. Coetzee's novel Disgrace. “There is a line inside this book about a dog pound. I told the cast, okay, I don't know what exactly a dog pound is. Let's check the Hungarian situation. So we all went to a dog pound in Budapest and I was shocked, totally shocked -- I am part of a system that is creating those places! I felt shame, and sorrow. Then, I decided I would like to tell one of these dogs' stories in Budapest.”
At first, White God sounds like an arthouse version of Lassie Come Home. Lili, a young girl living in Budapest, is forced by her father to abandon her beloved mixed breed dog, Hagen. (This is inspired by an absurd Hungarian law proposal that would persecute the owners of "un-Hungarian" dogs.)
The film follows Hagen who is, alone, terrified, on the run with a wild animal pack, hunted by dog catchers, and continuously confronted with the horrors that only humans are capable of, so White God is not a children's tale about a dog trying to find his owner for long. The tone constantly shifts, most notably when Hagen takes on the role of a doggy-dissident and foments a revolution among his compatriots at the pound and what might have been a fairy tale becomes a horror-revenge film.
“If you follow the fairy tale elements in [the movie], then you can enjoy [it]," Mundruczó says. “The normal, real story ends in a dog pound with an injection, not a revolution.”
This is a crisis movie;
there's really a moral
crisis in society.
DIRECTED BY Kornél Mundruczó
RELEASE DAY: March 27th, 2015 (USA)
For Mundruczó, that arc is how he sees his native country, Hungary. He explains that the films and theme parks of Disney are all influenced by Hungary's Habsburgian past.
“The first shot of the movie is totally about that. The empty streets, they are these classical buildings from Cinderella, etc. And when these angry dogs come into the frame, that's the contradiction,” he says. That’s where he sees the state of Hungary today -- a Disney film filled with hope that has become a nightmare filled with revenge. “All Eastern Europe, we lost democracy. But we still have capitalism and a very tough society. I felt shame and anger at the same time, being Hungarian.”
Mundruczó is earnest, serious but inviting. He comes across as ten years younger than he actually is (39), which might have something to do with spending the last decade making what he describes as his “teenage movies.” His first four films focused on capturing a “teenage mood, love for other films, being a teenager, how to be a teenager, etc.”
His generation has no memory of Communism, which could account for his lack of a hardened exterior. “I was born at the very last part,” he explains. “I was 14 when it was changing but before that, it was really soft. We were watching MTV like everybody else. We had the same shoes and drinks and foods. We really believed in democracy, and when we started to lose it, the last eight years, it really hurt.” That shift in Hungary led him to look for new inspirations and themes. He no longer felt a connection to youth and found himself asking, “What am I doing?” After discovering the literature of Vladimir Sorokin and J.M. Coetzee, he began to explore a personal political curiosity that manifested in two ways: “One is how to be post-Soviet and [the other] how to be Eastern European.”
A proposed law that inspired
the plot of White God
MUNDRUCZÓ SAYS that he decided to make the embattled dogs mixed-breeds because of a surprising law that was proposed in his home country. A parliament member wanted to fine citizens for having mixed-breed dogs:
“[It didn’t pass] but it was proposed to the parliament by an extreme right party. I was shocked, everybody was laughing. 'Okay, you can separate the dogs by mixed breed, pure breed and Hungarian pure breed.' You know? You can't believe it, its surrealistic. That has not happened, luckily, but that was the inspiration. That's why I used mixed-breeds, to tell that there is orders inside the dogs as well. 'You are mixed breed, you are pure breed and you are more important.'"
aking his protagonist a dog opened up the film and turned into an epic with nearly universal resonance. Many scenes require no dialogue at all. Hagen makes for an unbeatable protagonist. “You can use a dog as a hero,” Mundruczó says, as it would be unrealistic for a human to be as virtuous as a dog. “I mean, there are no heroes like him anymore. It's like using [a hero] from the 40s.” But Mundruczó stops short of saying humans are naturally evil; he's more concerned “with how to be human ... Because being born as a human is not enough. I can't say the human is the main problem of the Earth. Of course, we can criticize ourselves as much as possible to have a better society.” As far as how that test applies to Hungary, he says, “We have a huge handicap in Budapest. We have slowly started to talk about gender things, and family things, but who cares for animals? Nobody.”
The route to a better society is particularly on his mind these days. He feels that Eastern Europe is falling apart, if not all of society. “What I found, which is quite clear for me in East Europe, is that after the economic crisis there's really ... a human crisis coming, a moral crisis coming after it. And lots of fear is loaded into society, into the countries. We've lost lots of ideologies, even the ideology of democracy is not working.”
Though he’s been a dog lover throughout his life, he wasn’t an animal rights activist before working on this film. Since then he has come to see animals rights as a test for how a society treats all life. “On the one hand, it’s for the animals and the battle for equality but on the other hand, if you live in a society which gives rights to animals, it's in better shape than one that doesn't.”
That kind of openness and acceptance of the world may be one reason that the film has been the director's biggest success. Though it’s his sixth feature, White God will be making its New York premiere at the New Directors/New Films series. “It has opened up my cinematic language. So I can understand this description,” he says. He may see it as a uniquely Hungarian film, but audiences seem to disagree. After winning the Un Certain Regard prize at Cannes, he says that he was deluged with praise from around the world. “Maybe because of the dogs or because of the minority issue or racism, I don't know … I found that from Mexico to Greece everybody thought, It's our story. It's our story. It’s our story.”
Percentage of dogs and other animals put down in shelters
for 5 of the world's richest countries
Images courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.