First published on Vice.com, March 22, 2015. Read the original here.
One of the opening scenes in Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó's new film White God is every child's worst nightmare: a pack of 250 wild dogs, jowls quivering and spit flying, tear-ass after a young girl frantically pedaling her bicycle down an empty street. The moment is a perfect symbol for the film itself: beautiful, frightening, and more than a little surreal.
White God follows Lili (Zsofia Psotta), an eight-year-old girl, and Hagen, her beloved mutt dog. City ordinances in their hometown have made it illegal to own non-purebred dogs. Street mutts are rounded up and put in shelters until they are killed, as part of a nationalist purity movement. After Lili's father forces her to abandon Hagen on the outskirts of the city, we watch Hagen desperately try to make his way back home, fighting other dogs, evading dog catchers, and tricking vicious humans, before eventually being sold to a man who trains dogs for illegal fights. It is, in epic terms, a hero's journey, and Hagen is our four-legged Odysseus. But Lili is no droopy princess waiting in the wings: while Hagen battles physically, she stubbornly resists the growing nationalist movement with the kind of petulant fortitude that only a kid can muster.
The result is a tense but quiet meditation on the inhumanity of man, state-sanctioned violence, and our perpetual hope that the next generation will be the one that gets things right. Already, White God has impressed critics around the world—it captured the Prize Un Certain Regard at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, and was Hungary's selection for the 87th Academy Awards. With the film set for release in the US on March 27, VICE sat down with Mundruczo to ask him how it felt to fly in the face of W. C. Fields's infamous recommendation to never work with animals or children.
VICE: White God is obviously a parable about nationalism, but can you tell us a little bit more about the context and why you made it now?
Kornél Mundruczó: Eastern Europe has completely changed in the last five, eight years. It was true once that we were timeless, melancholic, slow. Almost the opposite is true now. [Europe] is very fast, rough, and extreme. The range between the rich and the poor is bigger, and the whole society is loaded with fear. The economic crisis is gone, but the moral crisis stays.
The society elected people out of fear, and the politicians in power reflect that fear back very well. They're against refugees, they're against minorities, they are against anything. It is not open and there's no freedom. We're still a democracy, not a dictatorship, but there's not as much freedom inside.
Those elements—racism, chauvinism—they really came up with the economic crisis. And it's very sad for me, as a person of a generation with a huge belief in solidarity and democracy. I wanted to reflect on the crisis, and those elements that rise up with the crisis as well.
There's a piece of music repeated throughout the film. It's both the thing that Lili plays to calm Hagen, and the thing that her conservative teacher forces students to practice. What is it and why did you choose it?
That is the "Hungarian Rhapsody" by Franz Liszt. It's really iconic in Hungary. The nationalists are using him quite a lot, but in a very empty way. He was a revolutionary guy; he believed in freedom. He was a romantic. The real meaning of this music is to fight for your freedom. So the meaning of this music and how the hard ultranationalists use it is a contradiction, a huge contradiction.
Did you really use 200 dogs?
No, 250! Two hundred were from the pound, and 50 were the elite group. In the beginning when we started to work with them I thought maybe it was never going to happen, because there were dominance fights between them, and so on. The two trainers, they were genius, they started to use a new method where somehow they socialized them together. That did it. And these were unhappy, aggressive dogs coming out of the dog pound with lots of fear, and at the end they were a really proud, nice batch of dogs.
During the shooting we started an adoption program, and they are all with families now. I was not a huge animal rights fighter before this movie. I wasn't facing the problem. Now I am. I would like to be in a society where animals have rights. We all live on the same planet and we all have the same right to live on it.
What kind of reception has the film gotten, both in Hungary and all over the world?
This really criticizes our society, so Hungary was really the most fragile territory, but it went very well. We had audiences and lots of discussions, so it was really good.
As for all over, it's divided into two [reactions]. Mexico, Turkey, Greece: they identify with the dogs. But in France or in Germany, they are the majority, so they are like "Ach! We are the one's creating these problems." I think it's a question of what perspective you watch the story from. I'm very interested to see what will happen in the US.