Wednesday, July 27, 2022

The Revolt and Uprising of the Downtrodden Stray Dogs: Review of White God

Two humans lying down in front of many sitting dogs
No matter how many movies you watch, there are always some that will stick with you, and one might even say haunt you forever. It may consist of a handful of memorable scenes, an unforgettable ending, or a particular performance, and, in some cases, the perfect marriage between images and a moving score. And then, there is White God (Fehér isten) by Hungarian filmmaker Kornél Mundruczó which is rather all those elements combined. It is a story about a special bond between a teenage girl and her dog, her fraught relationship with her father, and by extension, life itself in an uncaring society in addition to the intimate and lasting relationship with music.

As if all this was not enough, it evolves into a surreal movie that is a mix of Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, The Birds, Animal Farm, and Spartacus. Please be advised that from now on, you will be entering into a bizarro world that for the necessities of this piece will have to include spoilers and that will contain strange ideas that strangely enough will make perfect sense. There will also be a political dimension to everything discussed that will not take sides on the political spectrum but oddly enough, at least in my interpretation, give both sides their dues while at the same time criticizing them in equal measure.

Moreover, oddly enough animal lovers and rights activists who should be eating this up have jumped to quick and hasty conclusions and have claimed that the film portrays and represents animal cruelty, which is not the case, certainly not thematically nor in terms of filmmaking; to the careful and discerning eye, it becomes clear that evident care was taken to minimize any potential harm to the animals, while the trained stray dogs were, for the most part, adopted after filming. Be it as it may, you have been forewarned.

I first saw this movie about seven years ago. I do not really know why but I remember reading a favorable review of it. In fact, it had received generally good reviews and although it was an official selection and was sent for competition in the best foreign movie category at the Oscars, it was not nominated. It is one of those cases where it might have gone over the head of the Academy Award members and/or it might have been too bold and daring to promote and feature in that category.

The movie starts a bit like Danny Boyle’s zombie apocalypse 28 Days Later: In this case, a young girl with her trumpet dangling on her back is riding her bike through empty and deserted streets with hastily abandoned cars that have their doors wide open and without a soul anywhere in sight. Suddenly, out of nowhere and accompanied by an ominous score, she is being chased by a mob of angry and vicious dogs.

Flashback to where the same girl, our thirteen-year-old main character Lili is forced to spend the summer with her Dad, a divorced and solitary meat inspector who does not seem pleasant at first glance. Thank goodness she has Hagen, her dog, who is her faithful companion, but it becomes quickly apparent that neither her father, nor nosey and quarrelsome neighbors nor society at large have any type of feeling, affinity, or compassion for the creature. Dogs are seen as a nuisance, especially so-called common and ordinary half-breeds like Hagen whose designated place and fate seem to be the dog pound and animal shelter.

The difficult relationship Lili has with her father intensifies with the presence of the unwanted and disliked dog. As he is strongly opposed to the dog sleeping on the bed with them, he forces Hagen to sleep in the bathroom where he barks all night long robbing him of sleep and annoying the already annoyed neighbors. In a touching scene, Lili gets up at night, plays notes from Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 that soothe and calm the distressed animal, and she crawls into the bathtub and falls asleep there. The next morning, a government official appears and wants the father to pay for a dog license. After this event, Lili takes Hagen to her orchestra rehearsal and hides him behind a door asking him to be quiet.

For the most part, he is until he recognizes the musical section with the string of notes that she usually plays for him on the trumpet, and he bursts out to her happily barking. This gets Lili into serious trouble with an ill-humored conductor who puts her on the spot and gets her to choose between the orchestra and the dog. Of course, she chooses the dog and leaves the orchestra without further ado.

Without going into too much detail in terms of plot, what happens next is that the father abandons Hagen to his fate, and the dog ends up going on a few adventures that become increasingly disturbing and difficult to watch. At first, he befriends a friendly stray dog, and they are chased by dog catchers, but then, he finds temporary refuge with a homeless guy who sells Hagen who ends up becoming a dogfighter.

His eventual trainer sees something special in this dog. Although the dog is meek and friendly, there is heart and determination behind this façade, and the trainer recognizes that potential. And in some of the most harrowing scenes of the movie, he begins to train Hagen for fighting purposes by torturing him, beating him, and injecting him with steroids. The practice by this trainer is undoubtedly animal cruelty of the cruelest type imaginable, but it is definitely not a view that the filmmaker endorses but rather something that he exposes. And it is done most skillfully as most of it is not shown; and yet, it still makes us shudder and want to close our eyes so that we do not see the horror occurring in front of us.

After Hagen’s and the trainer’s first successful fight, we see blood, but it is a bravura sleight of hand that turns playfighting into an apparently vicious and bloody battle between two dogs. In the following scene, Hagen suddenly realizes that he has killed an innocent fellow dog for no reason. The acting of the dog, the expression, and his demeanor are exemplary here, and we feel or assume that he has woken up from pain, trauma, and torpor and suddenly realizes what he has done. Hagen decides to escape this cruel and heartless underworld.

But this experience, however painful and traumatic, has also emboldened him. When he is eventually caught by the dog catchers, he suddenly starts a revolt, which turns into a full-scale revolution. Hagen attacks and kills various people at the animal shelter and frees his fellow stray dogs to embark upon the city. This part of the movie has hues of Spartacus but is also a nod to B-movies and westerns. It becomes the revenge of the canine as he tracks, hunts down, and brutally kills all those who have harmed and done him wrong, from the homeless person to the awful dog trainer. The last on the list is, yes you guessed it, her ex-owner’s meat-inspecting father.

This is the surreal part of the movie, which is also a jolting experience, basically The Birds but with dogs. Given the emotional connection we have with Hagen, this is not as silly as it may sound, but it does require a stretch of the imagination and might be a turn-off for more realistic-minded viewers. In an astounding set piece, the members of the orchestra are suddenly faced with various dogs staring and glaring down at them from the balcony. They all stop the music and flee in panic.

The final scene of the movie is the most moving and I would put it as one of the best endings I have ever seen, right on par with other masterpieces like Shawshank Redemption. Lili soon realizes that Hagen is leading his posse of rebellious dogs to kill her father. Yet, at this point, her father has had a change of heart. After his daughter had almost hit rock bottom by being arrested for drug possession – the drugs were somebody else’s and she was not going to use them herself – her father changes his tune and becomes more caring and attentive.

It could be seen as a handy plot device to rouse sympathy for an unsympathetic character but at the same time, it could also be the true nature and being of a person who changes for the better after experiencing intense turmoil, heartbreak, and suffering. Be it as it may, we end up not wanting him to die, and she tries her best to save him from the attacking mob.

The showdown and final scene happen in front of the slaughterhouse. She bravely faces the pack of dogs and tries to talk sense to its leader Hagen. He menaces her but she tries to win him over with soft and kind words. Does he recognize her? Can she re-awaken those feelings and moments of tenderness that they shared, those moments of innocent bliss together before the world went berserk? Will he ever forgive her?

Then, she pulls out her trumpet and starts playing the familiar motif of this film. What happens next still gives me goosebumps as I am writing this. We can see on Hagen’s expression and demeanor that he recognizes the melody and that powerful memories have been stirred and triggered deep inside of his being, and he then lies down. And with him, all the other dogs follow suit as the beautiful melody continues and lingers in the air. Moved by the spectacle and in awe and reverence, both daughter and father prostrate themselves in front of the dogs, and the movie ends.

This movie can be read and interpreted in different ways. The more straightforward interpretation would be to be kinder to animals and treat them with empathy, love, and respect. This message would easily resonate with pet owners, but it can be extended to society as a whole, which often views animals as inferior beings. It can also be further extended to using and abusing animals as food alongside criticism of the (over)consumption of meat. The graphic opening at the slaughterhouse and the symbolic ending at the same place certainly point in that direction.   

In terms of political allegory, we could also consider a more communist and socialist interpretation in which the poor and downtrodden would rise and revolt against the bourgeoisie and take over control and power. There would be a state of anarchy, chaos, and destruction and a time of reckoning for a long history of abuse, exploitation, torture, and suffering.

Yet, if you replace the poor with the meek, which is a characteristic of Hagen, then we can even have biblical connotations of the meek finally inheriting the earth. It is, however, not done by turning the other cheek but with the sword, as Jesus himself has proclaimed. The dogs would be his disciples and soldiers breaking through ignorance and hatred and taking control of their lives. Put into the context of a more current perspective, this is a fight for freedom and liberty where the shackles of censorship, control, and manipulation would be taken off.

I admit that both views are wacky and extreme. Interestingly, they would condone violence and anarchy, and I oppose both. In my personal view, revolution founded on blood and destruction only fosters hatred as there is literally no love lost between both sides. This is the current political climate, which will not be resolved until negotiations, compromises and open dialogue from both sides are engaged and are taken seriously to bridge the differences, mend the hurts and misconceptions and find common ground.

And yet, and by all means and purposes, this is an excellent movie that can be enjoyed without becoming entangled in controversy as it showcases the love and bond between humans and animals, a message that will and should resonate with each being, first and foremost.

Saturday, July 9, 2022

Under the Banner of Feminism: The Myths, Struggles and Realities of Women’s Rights

Women's lib movement
Above and beyond all, we must respect human rights and as much as it is possible, feasible, and advisable, we certainly ought to expand and elaborate our freedoms. Throughout history, people everywhere have been struggling and fighting for equality and dealing with discrimination, racism, systemic violence, and genocide. These are real issues that we need to face but how we approach them, and the means (our attitudes, agendas, beliefs) are as, if not more, important as the end results.

When we look at women’s rights in North America, we can see a trajectory with the curtailing of and gradual gains of rights and opportunities since the time of the pioneers and settlers. Initially, the limits and restrictions must have been established out of necessity mainly due to the fact to the various threats and difficulties that the settlers had to face on a regular basis. Basically, they had adopted a hunter and gatherer lifestyle where the home would be assigned to the females, while the dangerous ventures into unknown terrains as well as the protection of the property were the business of the men. Such behavior, practices, and mindset in today’s world would be justifiably called and criticized as "toxic masculinity", but back then it was out of sheer necessity and circumstance and not a matter of choice.   

During slavery, another crucial instance and a serious case of injustice, there were many women who would identify with black people’s plights, not only because of a natural heightened sense of empathy but also because they could identify with the plight of not having necessary rights and a lack of movement, physically, mentally, and emotionally. Women felt equally limited and shackled in their societies so the unconscious motive and potential hope and drive would have been to shed some light on their own conditions by helping to free and liberate the enslaved members of their respective communities.

At this point in time, those who clearly ruled the lands, as well as the politics of the time, were men, and they would purposely not allow and even subjugate females by purposely ignoring and stifling their voices and influence. But as black people began to gain certain basic rights and freedoms, at least in theory and on paper, women felt emboldened to demand their God-given rights next to men, which would represent at least a semblance of equality. A crucial moment in the women’s liberation movement was the right to vote. This opened the path and opportunity not only of influencing politics but to enter it, that is of course, to the extent that the ruling males at the top would permit and allow for this.

The Second World War highlighted the many contributions of women in the workplace. It was not a conscious choice but came out of necessity, and women showed their mettle during these troublesome times as many of their husbands were fighting for freedom overseas. This not only gave them confidence but also demonstrated to the men that women were much more capable than previously assumed. But as the economy was thriving and necessities did not demand a double-household workforce during the 50s, most people focused on their homes and families, and we could say that to an extent, women’s rights regressed and took a step back.

Then we had the 60s and it came with a powerful tool at women’s disposal, the pill as a contraceptive device. This empowered and emboldened women to gain control over their bodies and to choose whether and whenever they wanted to become pregnant or not. It also opened pathways into the workforce as they could work so to speak without “unwanted interruptions” due to unplanned and accidental pregnancies, a concern that many employers openly or secretly harbored.

But that is the moment where women moved away from their quest for equality into other somewhat more radicalized domains and territories. Their real focus, whether intentional or not, was an attack on marriages. As such, it was framed as a rejection of femininity and female values. The bra instead of supporting the chest was redefined as a symbol of oppression and was burnt at the stake.

Women within this liberation movement joined forces with other marginalized groups including gay rights as well as the hippies. The latter with their rejection of marriages and denial of romantic notions and conceptions driven by anarchistic ideas of free love without strings attached, and an overall lack of commitment and emotional bonds gained traction with the women’s liberation movement. Various women who were not themselves attracted to men felt a sense of threat, anger, hatred as well as envy towards everything that was deemed masculine in nature.

While marriage was seen and defined as a prison, the focus then shifted toward families. This is where the battles over abortion come in. The idea that pregnancy occurs within the female body and hence it is her absolute choice gained momentum since then. What this encouraged and accelerated was an attack on families. Many conservatives noted that and started to oppose and fight back. Many of them were women, and although they were seen as traitors of the movement, and hence of their own gender, they did have a point.

At this point, the quest for liberation and equality moved into an uncomfortable battle for hegemony and power. The battle cry was to bring about a sexual revolution and to topple the patriarchy only to replace it with a matriarchy, which would be, by all likes and purposes and in the words of The Who, “meet the new boss, same as the old boss”.

Sadly, eminent and respectable figures like Ruth Bader Ginsburg got caught up and entangled in the more radical aspects of the movement. Although she had fought for equality, successfully so, in her later years, she had a less open and more inflexible, and one-sided stance. For instance, she was asked what the ideal gender proportion would be for the Supreme Court. She answered to have a Supreme Court that was made up of women only. At this point, she was clearly not supporting equality and equal rights, and it may have started to set a dangerous precedent for judges and courts to take more daring and provocative stances thereafter.

Then, we have the famous or infamous case of Roe vs Wade, recently overturned after having half a century of precedence. I had little knowledge about the actual case, that is until I watched the documentary AKA Jane Roe. Somehow, I had imagined the case in a very different way. In reality, the alleged victim was neither honest nor sympathetic. Initially, she had even lied about the circumstances of her pregnancy falsely claiming that she had been raped by black men.

And yet, the civil rights lawyers saw an opportunity in her and managed to win the court case in the name of women’s rights. It is rather unfortunate if not misguided for the movement not to have found a better and more reliable representative for women’s rights. In fact, what Norma craved most was attention and the spotlight, but soon enough, the women’s liberation noted that she was emotionally unstable, volatile, and highly unpredictable. As a result, she was barred from major speaking events on this cause.

And they were right because, at a later date, she was recruited and paid by an evangelist group to speak out against abortion. There, she was handed the opportunity to speak up, but it came at a cost because she was asked to renounce sexual intercourse with women from then on. In the end, she got paid handsomely for her speaking engagements against abortion where she claimed that she was conned into advocating for it in the first place. But, in all fairness, she was the con artist who managed to always get her way on both sides of the fence and debate and managed to attain both fame and money by deceiving and letting down everyone in the process.

Sadly, this casts a shadow on the whole movement from its inception. But women’s rights are much more than the right to abort. It has received too much attention and focus but by doing so, the movement loses focus and undermines itself. The slogan and battle cry “my body, my choice” has been overused and it does not take into consideration or underplays various factors, such as the many potential threats and dangers of such operations, which could cause permanent physical and emotional damage and lead to sterility.

Moreover, while it seems accepted and commonplace to pigeonhole and demonize conservatives on these issues and to label them as bigots and chauvinists, they do have a point in that the baby’s rights are being completely disregarded and undermined in this debate. It is not merely a matter of religious stance or viewpoint but a simple fact. And there is a double standard at play here where many concerned with avoiding meat and animal products to save sentient beings are asking for unrestricted access to aborting life within their bodies.

In fact, I have rarely heard any talk about men’s rights in this matter. Yes, it is not their body, but it is still their child and the fact that men would have no say whatsoever is unfair, unjustified, and unethical and only proves my point made earlier that the current state and status of women’s rights is not interested in equity and equal rights but has its own agenda of superiority.

There are also issues with the terms given to each side of the movement. Those who claim to be “pro-life” are essentially anti-abortion. It is not an issue of life only, the preservation of life leading to birth, but it also includes being against the harms and dangers of such abortions. Of course, it is to be assumed that women are aware of the implications but there are cases where the information is not conveyed to them clearly, they are not fully conscious of the risks, or where it is used as political fodder. Lastly, there is also a matter of cost and resources. Abortions are not free and will take various resources of time, money, and staff away from other pressing and urgent health issues and concerns.

It is also to be noted that most world religions and philosophies tend to oppose abortion, whether it is Islam, Christianity, the Catholic Church, or even Buddhists. In fact, His Holiness the Dalai Lama himself has openly declared to be against abortions as they impede, disrupt, and hinder the karmic flow and cycle of life.

On the other hand, the term “pro-choice” should also be scrutinized. I would prefer to see such a morally, psychologically, and emotionally loaded decision less as a choice than an option or a way out. A choice can range from minor decisions about what to wear or to eat to life-changing ones about whether to get married, have a family, or have children. But it is my opinion that in this case, the 'choice' is not and should not be entirely the women’s.

Although it’s her body, she should consider the input of the person who impregnated her as well as take counsel from her loved ones and family members, her community, and even more importantly, the input and consultation of her doctors, those of the body as well as those of the mind. And like any type of surgery, the decision to abort should be made as a last resort. It is not to claim or imply that women tend to take this choice lightly but cases in which a person chooses to partake in various abortions are a red flag that not everybody takes the matter as seriously as they ought to.

I would like to add some final thoughts, reflections, and potential clarifications here. There are many issues that need to be addressed in terms of women’s rights. We have made headways on the path to equal rights, but we have not yet reached equality and the quest may even slip back and recede if we are not careful and attentive.

This is not just about Roe versus Wade being overturned, which is unfortunate and deplorable because as a whole and as a blind blanket statement, it curtails women’s choices and freedoms in various states, but it is also a setback as it pertains to sexual abuse and domestic violence. To hold onto a hardline view without allowing for any compassionate grounds will not benefit anyone, and there are and will and must be viable exceptions to the rules even from those who are strongly set against abortion.

On the other hand, the fact that people support the notion and institution of marriage does not mean that they are not aware of misuse and abuse occurring in these relationships especially where and when the couples are not on equal footing. There are also cultural and religious aspects to be considered and evaluated and, in many cases, re-evaluated since women are often mistreated in many of those practices and traditions.  Nonetheless, these problems are not limited to men and heterosexual marriages as they occur also in same-sex relationships and, although less common, there are also cases of emotional abuse perpetrated by women against their husbands in heterosexual relationships.

At the same time, while in the Western privileged world, we are fighting for certain specific and important rights, many basic rights are ignored and trampled upon in other parts of the world. As implied earlier, even in the West, we still have outdated, and dangerous practices that are done in the name of religion or other bigoted ways of thinking and mindsets. It is important to try to see these vital matters through a less emotional and political lens by adopting a more reasonable and realistic view and to make gains in the direction of what matters for all of humanity, not only select groups, lobbies, or agendas. All the while, we must ensure that we protect, fortify and expand upon rights and privileges, not at the expense of other equally important matters.