In the film “White God,” which opens this week in some theaters, new legislation in Hungary means the owners of any dogs who are not purebred must pay fines. To avoid the penalty, many mixed breeds end up getting dumped.
Among those dogs is Hagen, who belonged to 13-year-old Lili (Zsófia Psotta). Outraged that her father — who is divorcing her mother — dumped Hagen instead of paying the tax, Lili takes off in search of her beloved dog. At the same time, as Hagen tries to find his way back home, he eventually joins hundreds of other abandoned dogs in a revolt.
A ‘Stark, Beautiful Metaphor’
“White God” is “a story of the indignities visited upon animals by their supposed human superiors, but it’s also a stark, beautiful metaphor for the political and cultural tensions sweeping contemporary Europe,” according to its press kit. The film won both the Palm Dog and Un Certain Regard awards at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival.
“I have chosen animals as the subject instead of minorities,” director and co-writer Kornel Mundruczó said in a statement. “I did this because I wanted to focus freely on this sensitive subject; as freely and with the least number of taboos as possible. Therefore, I tell the story of animals, a dispossessed species that was once man’s best friend. But man has betrayed them, and in turn, they revolt against their former masters and companions in order to validate their existence.”
As for the title, Mundruczó said he wanted to “place the film in a perspective where we understand that the dog is the symbol of the eternal outcast whose master is his god. I was always very interested in the characteristics of God. Is God really white? Or does each person have their own God? The linked words of the title harbor many contradictions, and that’s why I found it so fascinating.”
First Time 250 Real Dogs Featured in a Film
All 250 of the dogs in “White God” are real; CGI was not used. The filmmakers want to reassure everyone that none of the dogs were harmed during the production, which they say “followed the American film industry’s strictest codes of conduct and humane treatment for animal performers.”
Mundruczó said it is the first time so many real dogs have been featured in a film.
“The task was new for even the most experienced dog trainers and crew members,” he said. “No one had ever shot a film with 250 dogs before. Usually, dogs are only around in films to snatch a birthday cake off the table.”
The dogs were all found in animal shelters. By the time filming ended, all 250 of them had forever homes.
Animal trainer Teresa Miller said she spent two months researching hundreds of adoptable dogs for the part of Hagen, starting with animal shelters in California.
“It was important to not only find that unique dog that would stand out in a pack of 200 dogs, but also a dog that had a photo double,” she said. “The amount of work that the dog had to do in this film would have been nearly impossible without the help of a double.”
Miller finally found two 9-month-old Labrador/Sharpei/hound-mix brothers, Luke and Brodie, to play Hagen. After a couple months of training, the two dogs joined the other dogs who’d been trained by Arpad Halasz in Hungary.
Working with Dogs ‘Therapeutic’
Mundruczó described working with the four-legged cast members as a therapeutic experience. “It was like coming into contact with Mother Nature herself or even a bit of the universe,” he said. “It was a shooting process where we had to adjust to them, and not the other way around. The film is an outstanding example of the singular cooperation between two species.”
The two-legged stars of “White God” had no problem working with the dogs. “In a sense, the dogs became actors and the actors became dogs,” Mundruczó said.
Reviews of the film have been positive. The New York Times called it “a fierce and beautiful parable.” It’s an “emotionally rousing, technically masterful man-vs.-dog adventure,” according to Variety.
“My intention was to demonstrate that mankind and beasts share the same universe,” Mundruczó said. “Only if we are able to position ourselves in the place of different species do we have the chance to lay down our arms.”
Photos courtesy of Magnolia Pictures