White God by director Korneli Mundruczi opens with a theatrical scene of an abandoned street in a metropolis city in Hungary where 13-year-old Lili quickly rides her bike over a giant bridge. At first we see abandoned cars, but then the scene cuts to a horrifying vision of two-hundred-and-fifty dogs chasing after Lili. As an audience we are terrified. The story then takes a step back in time where Lili is being dropped off to her estranged father for the summer by her mother and her new boyfriend. We immediately get the feeling that she was some abandoned mutt searching for her place in life. In fact she is not only carrying her luggage but also has a mongrel with her which does not please her father. We learn quickly that the laws in Hungary are against those mixed breeds; a law has been placed that supports only the true breeds, all others will be heavily taxed. The result is that people have to pay a heavy price for having these mongrels and so begins the purge of dumping dogs off at the humane society or into the streets where dogs naturally form huge packs and roam the streets. They are not only hungry but angry from the abuse and abandonment from their former masters.
For Lili, her dog Hagen is her best friend despite the fact he looks like a pit bull to us. In fact he is more than that, he is her family and they have a very special relationship which is centered on music. Her father is dead-set against the dog since his ex-wife bought the dog and so the struggle begins between daughter and father. Lili’s cries are agonizing as Hagen is pulled from the car by her father and left on the street. There is nothing she can do about it as the car continues on route. Despite her promises to obey her father’s wishes to continue on with the orchestra, she begins the search for her lost dog, her family member, the only one who understands her. Meanwhile Hagen joins a giant pack and then at some point is kidnapped, drugged and brutally trained to become a killer and then placed into a dog fighting arena.
The audience becomes restless and nervous, barely handling the scene of two dogs growling at each other behind a set of walls. Then the scene cuts to just hearing growling sounds. Much to my surprise, the woman next to me left in panic as she cried out, “I can’t see this, I own a dog.” Many more sprang up from their seats and ran from the cinema. Then the scene cuts again to show us blood on the ground and blood on the victorious dog Hagen, as the men begin fighting over it. More viewers left sensing that more horrific scenes were to come but at that point Hagen disappears and returns to his giant pack. I wanted to laugh, because in reality we didn’t even see the dogs fighting and, because I have a dog, I can tell the difference between a staged dog fight and a real one. I saw the movie twice in order to see if the reaction would be the same the second time around and it happened the exactly same way as the first. This film won the main prize at Cannes under the category Un certain regard, so obviously people do see this strong message of the film and understood that director Korneli Mundruczi was using the dogs as a personification of what is going on politically in Hungary as the right wing is growing stronger by the minute. The film had an amazing end to it which was quite unexpected not to mention that he had to integrate and train two-hundred-and-fifty dogs to socialize with one another and not have a giant brawl. That is actually what was amazing to see. I also wanted to ask those who left, why are you able to watch people being attacked, raped and murdered but can’t handle this scene between two dogs? Why has our compassion for people become less while our compassion for fighting dogs is growing? Is the film White God a spiritual sign that we can only find harmony among the mongrels and as people we can never learn? Is this political situation, which is growing in Hungary, soon to spread throughout Europe and is reminiscent of the Second World War? It was unfortunate that the director was not there to explain his choices that he made and how he made this film possible because it was an amazing effort.
But for this festival the dog fights weren’t over. The next film which featured dog fighting was the Turkish coming- of-age film Sivas by director Kaan Mujdeci living in Kreuzberg, Berlin. Dog fighting takes on a completely different role in this film. High in the Anatolian Mountains, we meet the young 11-year-old boy Asian who lives in a very male dominated society. The village holds on to its strong conservative values like a bedbug holds on to a mattress and everyone knows their place. Asian is small for his age and searching for his place in society. It starts in school when the school director chooses the story Snow White and the Seven Dwarves as a production piece. He is in love with the girl who is Snow White but he is not picked as the prince. He is clearly to be a dwarf but that is unacceptable to Asian. When Asian witnesses a secret dog fight between two villages, he sees how hard real life is. The wounded Kangal is left in the ditch to die since he has no worth if he can’t win a fight. Asian goes against this pragmatic idea and nurses him back to life. He soon has a place among his village since they see the strength of this Kangal and equate its qualities with a lion. Asian soon becomes a leader, not a Snow White dwarf, among the children. Although Asian does not want his new dog Sivas (named after the district where these dogs originated) to fight, he finally agrees to it since his family needs the money. Kids need to grow up quickly and only the strongest survive.
The dog fight scenes in this movie looked more brutal than in White God and we actually see the dogs clash with one another, and, just like in White God, many people fled at the dog fighting scenes in Sivas. This film won the special jury prize at the Venice Festival. This time director Kaan Mujdeci was prepared for people complaining about the dog fights. He explained that no animal abuse happened. They had several veterinarians on site to make sure that all the animals were treated well and cared for. A special cream was used on the mouth which relaxes the muscles so the dogs in reality are not able to fight. It was interesting that he needed a German interpreter to help translate even though he has lived most of his life in Germany. It was interesting to see that others in the audience were more upset by the foul language used by the child actors. I was surprised since profanity was not translated into the subtitles and therefore I had no idea why the audience was so upset. In fact, many viewers came from that region and were seriously upset to see a false image of their villages. Emotions were so intense around me, that I expected a “dog” fight in the cinema. In the end Mujdeci left shaking his head. Perhaps he will decide to avoid a personal appearance at the next film festival, which is what Mundruczi did. Why are dog fights so hard to watch when we can clearly watch, all day long, the violence that mankind can create against each other?