I saw Lek and the Dogs at the Electric Palace Cinema in Hastings on Friday evening. It is based on the true story of Ivan Mishukov, who left his abusive home at four and lived with street dogs for two years before being picked up and put into children's homes. His transition into adulthood seemed to work for a while but he could not maintain it.
The film was quite an experience. A friend of mine, who had seen it in London, asked me on Facebook what my review of the film was. My immediate Facebook reply was:
“Great apart from a tad too much not entirely convincing crying from Lek, and the tiresome, smugly dogmatic (no pun intended) philosophising. The film would have been much more effective by cutting out that guy entirely.... that's my review! :)
As a pithy and amusing comment it works but the film bugged me and kept bugging me. So I looked at the published reviews to see if any of them reflected what my own reaction had been.
I found a lot of reviews. All of them stuck to pretty much the same format but not always in the same order: a plot synopsis, varying degrees of sycophancy and a focus on cinematic form and reference, literary and philosophical influences and assessing where the body of work fits in director Andrew Kötting’s oeuvre. There was a fair range of opinion on these things and not everybody enjoyed the experience. The BBC’s film critic Mark Kermode obviously did. This film is right up his street. He was obviously going to find several avenues of pleasure in this movie and he did. So far, so predictable. To be fair, however, he did also say (as did others) that what people took from this film would be entirely personal. That is absolutely the case but then again is that not the case with any film or work of art?
There seemed to be very little about the actual content - the emotional content I mean - and surely it is the story and the trauma and the emotions that are the whole point here. Introducing the film at the Electric Palace, Andrew Kötting said that he wanted people to feel these things. That is commendable enough but it makes an assumption that the audience are strangers to such feelings and the director is therefore providing a service to allow them to understand trauma at a safe distance. Often it seemed as if the director was ‘bludgeoning’ his audience (a word used in more than one review) to emote, and to feel pain. In that respect the film is very much of its time. Public displays of trauma: parents of murdered children, victims of violence, abuse, terror - trauma as spectacle seems to be a news requirement these days.
A couple of the reviews mentioned the word ‘emotional’. The problem was that none of them really communicated any of that emotion. Perhaps it is in the nature of ‘educated’ reviewers to not go there. There is still that vague sense of contempt for public expression of emotion but it’s fine if it’s either fiction, or cinematised ‘truth’ that can be glossed over in an analysis of the form in which it is presented. The reality of the story becomes secondary to the package in which it comes. Mainstream film reviewers are obviously not keeping up. I wanted to know how the film made them feel and what they thought of the subject.
I could not access the pay to read reviews but the available quotes suggested they were much the same content-wise, if more critical of the film overall. The most succinct and effective review was probably Eye for Film’s, Amber Wilkinson who avoided the verbiage and managed to tell you everything you needed to know without actually losing sight of Lek - the film’s subject.
What I found most strange and disturbing is what appears to be the complete disconnect between telling and reviewing a tale of childhood trauma, without understanding just how triggering that can be for audience members who have suffered childhood trauma. The director joked that walkouts had previously occurred perhaps because people thought they were coming to see Show Dogs or Isle of Dogs. The muted ripple of laughter in the room was muted I suspect because half of this audience didn’t have a clue what either of these films were.
I am sure that some of the walkouts from showings of this film have been because the rawness of it has been too overwhelming for those who don’t have the luxury of understanding trauma at a distance. In fact I am not sure it is possible to understand trauma at a distance.
The audio-visual noise may be another reason people walk out. It was phenomenally loud, intense and often distorted. For people who do not find peace at the centre listening to industrial noisecore, I can see why the soundtrack could present not only emotional challenges, but physical, aural discomfort as well.
The difficult thing for me to take in this film, however, was the philosophising drone that effectively concluded you’re fucked. Your trauma will inform your actions in endless repetitive cycles and there’s no escape. Such a message is potentially devastating. People who have been traumatised are painfully aware that it is still informing their actions. They have been forced to understand it and forced to find ways to alleviate that cycle in order to survive both emotionally and physically. The glibness of this single, simplistic philosophical overdub, threatened to reduce a complex and quite remarkable piece of cinema to a smug, undergraduate observation. Because of this I couldn’t help feeling that Lek/Ivan had actually been a bit dissed by having his story and his trauma used to conveniently park a philosophy that does neither Lek, nor actually the film, justice. However, I am seeing this film as a standalone piece. In the context of the trilogy perhaps there is a wider angle. At least the humour kicked in as the (cruelly) paraphrased drone continued … yer’ all gonna die, the planet’s gonna die ….. no shit Sherlock!
We live in an age of anxiety, dystopia and fear masked by increasingly absurd levels of pretence that we are all unique and heroic individuals who can make a difference. We are simultaneously more empathetic and quicker to shut down. We are all one of Lek’s crowd on the street desperate for recognition. With no certainty about what we are supposed to be recognised for, or who is supposed to be doing the recognising, we are constantly recalibrating our identities just to feel comfortable. Going underground is not an option we have.
It is an exhausting time in which to live. The film communicates this, at times in a profoundly beautiful way but it is the beauty of Lek himself that you should be taking home with you.
BFI Interview with Andrew Kotting
First dramatisation of Ivan Mishukov's story, which formed the foundation of this film, was Hattie Naylor's play 'Ivan and the Dogs'.