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category: Review

Side Street Films: White God

Thursday, March 5, 2015 by

Eden Cinemas’ innovative Side Street Films programme is aimed at showing that there is “more to cinema than Hollywood” – and we couldn’t agree more. Our resident cineaste Shaun Antnin takes a look at the fortnightly offerings from Eden’s artistically oriented programme and decides what they are worth.

As cows are lead to the slaughter, an adolescent girl stands outside an abattoir, awaiting her father’s arrival. Lilli’s mother is embarking on a three-month trip to Australia with her lover, so Lilli will stay at her father’s one-bed flat. However, no one had informed Dad that her large dog, Hagen, would be accompanying her, and the requirement for hastily (re)arranged living arrangements in his ill-equipped flat instantly causes a great deal of friction between the pair, aggravating what is already a distant, strained relationship.

The situation rapidly worsens. The following day, Lilli’s (now irate) father presents her with an ultimatum: that Hagen is either taken to a shelter or released onto the streets to fend for himself. She rashly calls his bluff, daring him to set the dog loose. Much to her dismay, her typically taciturn father acts upon his threat, and Hagen and Lilli watch helplessly as their life together is torn apart

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From hereon in, the narrative alternates between two plot threads: one portraying Hagen’s quest to return to Lilli, while the other depicts Lilli’s misadventures as she searches tirelessly for her lost pet, while also making the transition from child to teenager without her mother’s guidance. Vitally, the narrative documents the effect that the actions of others have upon of the two protagonists, and the further consequences resulting from their reactions to situations they are placed in.

Ostensibly White God presents itself as a remarkably straightforward story. However, in truth this is a masquerade, and if one scratches the surface it is easy to see that its apparent simplicity veils what is ultimately a morality tale-cum-parable; and dogs are the ideal vessels for the messages the film wishes to convey. Man’s best friend not only shares the same domestic spaces as their human masters, but are typically represented in the arts as good judges of character and considered to typify the finer elements of the human condition: affection, loyalty, and unconditional love, while also exhibiting less agreeable traits such as aggression and selfishness. Both set of characteristics, and their associated connotations, are familiar to audiences, and awareness of such knowledge is played upon throughout the film.

Superficially, the primary theme is man’s dismissal of dogs’ value to humankind. Good breeding seems to be the sole criterion regarding the animals’ worth, with reference regularly made to the only ‘acceptable’ canines being pure-bred pedigrees – and not the crossbred ‘mutts’ which the mongrels are frequently denounced as – and such Orwellian overtones, along the lines of some dogs being “more equal than others,” echo throughout the film.

However, the film’s real message is abundantly clear: that the true victims of such attitudes are human bipeds rather than our four-legged friends. Themes of racism (often masquerading as ignorance), classism, retribution and vengeance are prevalent throughout the work. Another prominent topic is how treatment by others can condition a person’s behaviour and attitudes, whereby even one or two negative acts – be they evil, selfish, inconsiderate or merely thoughtless – may result in a domino effect, affecting not only individuals but society as a whole.

Retribution, when it comes, is both stark and violent. Vitally, much of this is implied rather than depicted, and often its results are seen from a distance. As with other thematic elements within the film, the meaning conveyed carries more weight than what is shown. Consequently, there are only a few occasions where a bloody aftermath is depicted, and these are brief and justified, rather than merely gratuitous.

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As the plot gains momentum and the film nears its conclusion, it is made increasingly apparent that the tale is primarily a parable. Allusions are laid on a little too thickly to be mere coincidence, reaching a point in the third act where one could not help but be reminded of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, with a real dog in place of the CGI chimp. This state of affairs contrasts starkly with the intimate situations depicted at the onset of the film. However, this change of tack is both justifiable and contextualised.

When the final scene arrives, the film reverts to type and reveals its soul once more. The ending is simultaneously daunting and haunting in its execution, being entirely appropriate and perfectly pitched. Its impact encourages the viewer to step back and mull over the ethical questions the film has raised over its duration.

Ultimately, the message the film puts across may be far from subtle, but it must be kept in mind that White God is ultimately a mainstream film which just happens to be in a foreign language, with a dog as its protagonist, rather than an obscure art film aimed at a niche audience. It has a great deal to offer on both technical and stylistic levels, along with a strong plot and solid acting. Animal lovers and cinemagoers alike will also be impressed by the skilful use of real animals and the manner in which the work strikes just the right balance between drama, character development and action.

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