Dogs triumph in Cannes as canine thriller wins prestigious prize

(From left) Actress Zsofia Psotta, Hagen the dog, and White God director Kornel Mundruczo posing for photographers at the Cannes Film Festival on May 17, 2014. -- PHOTO: EPA
(From left) Actress Zsofia Psotta, Hagen the dog, and White God director Kornel Mundruczo posing for photographers at the Cannes Film Festival on May 17, 2014. -- PHOTO: EPA

CANNES (AFP) - Dogs triumphed in Cannes Friday as Hungarian canine thriller "White God" won the film festival's prestigious prize for innovative work, just hours after its four-legged stars scooped up the unofficial Palm Dog award for pooch talent.

The latest film by Hungarian director Kornel Mundruczo beat Ryan Gosling's widely panned directorial debut and 18 other movies to take top honours in the Un Certain Regard competition, which seeks to recognise new talent or encourage innovative, daring work.

"White God" was just that, according to critics, sending viewers on a strange dystopian ride, with the plot centred on Hagen, a gentle, golden-furred mongrel who is denigrated by every human being except his devoted, 13-year-old owner Lili.

When the lonely girl finds herself staying with her father after her mother travels abroad, problems abound, and Lili's dad ends up abandoning the dog on the side of a highway.

Unused to being alone, a whimpering Hagen has to survive with other strays - including a cute mutt which saves him from more than one scrape.

Lili desperately looks for her friend, whose trust in humans proves to be his downfall. He is sold off to a man who trains him how to fight, gradually turning the adoring dog into a violent, killing machine.

By the end of the film, an unrecognisable Hagen rises up against his oppressors and leads a pack of other strays on a murderous spree through Budapest.

Aside from Hagen, who was played by two dogs - real-life brothers Luke and Body - some 250 street mutts were used in the film, all of whom were placed in new homes after the shoot.

Mundruczo did not make any comment after accepting the prize from the Un Certain Regard jury members.

But in an earlier interview with AFP, he said Hagen was a symbol of the marginalised and oppressed, and said he drew inspiration for the film on the current political situation in Hungary and much of Europe, where rising populism and nationalism is causing concern.

"In my eyes, art is communication and art is criticism," he said.

Mundruczo was inspired to use dogs to depict the oppressed by South African novelist J. M. Coetzee, who has written about the human treatment of animals in several books including Booker Prize-winner "Disgrace".

But finding the right dog to play Hagen was a challenge, and Teresa Ann Miller, a dog trainer for the film industry who taught Body and Luke all their tricks, searched high and low for three months before striking gold.

The pair's acting talents were recognised earlier Friday when a panel of prominent critics awarded them Cannes' unofficial Palm Dog, a prize for the best acting pooch that has become an institution at the festival every year.