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Alison Wilde questions definitions of disability in her review of the Greek film Dogtooth / 23 May 2010

Dogtooth (Kynodontas) was directed by Giorgos Lanthimos, starring Christos Stergioglou, Michelle Valley, Aggeliki Papoulia (Greek with English subtitles) It went on general release on 23 April 2010.

This film does not contain any characters with impairments. Nor does it hint at any disability themes. And yet, despite its evasion of direct questions, answers or moral messages - its bizarre story is replete with truly disabling events, often mundane, and increasingly alarming, which echo the ubiquitous and unpleasant disturbances of everyday life.

It is not clear that allegorical meaning can be attributed to this film. So far it has been regarded as an attack on the traditional Greek (or any close) family, a criticism of home-schooling, and a political comment on the over-protectiveness of the nanny state or the Greek bourgeoisie.

So why am I reviewing a story of a non-disabled, middle-class Greek family for dao? Well, because it tells a compelling tale of human action and agency highlighting concerns which lie at the heart of our (and other people’s) oppression, illuminating the banality of evil. Not only does this story follow the attempts of a mother and father to keep their children from the social world, their attempts to do so illuminate the many and profound effects of segregation.

By taking the sanctity of family life to its extreme, it puts the normality of nuclear family life under the microscope. We witness how the seemingly benign, if extreme and ‘dysfunctional’ fear-based attitudes to child-rearing culminate, inevitably, in abuse and violence.

As a story which is premised on the urge to protect ourselves from contamination, we witness the consequences of social segregation for individual psychology and interpersonal relations. The disturbing implications this has for membership of the social world are unravelled - and we see the politics of segregation for what they are: immensely destructive

Initially, the mother and father are portrayed as over-protective parents who have made a benign, if deeply misguided, decision to detain their children from the influences of society. Now in their late teens or early twenties, the son and two daughters (all un-named) have always been protected from the contagion of the world beyond the high security perimeters of their (large) home.

They are confined to an everyday existence shaped by the misinformation which their parents have provided in the form of distorted explanations and blatent lies. Nonetheless, incomprehensible traces of the outside world beyond inevitably seep through. Curiosity is triggered by the aircraft flying above (explained away as toys), and the elder daughter’s thirst for knowledge increases when Christina, a security guard at their father’s firm, is brought home to satisfy his son’s carnal desires.

Gradually the film reveals the propaganda their parents have used to support their goals and the disturbing consequences of their isolation is exposed. The concoction of parental lies and minor events take on a greater significance when the elder daughter begins to talk and barter with Christina for some of her possessions. The exchanges between the two women fuel the daughter’s curiosity, culminating in a series of shocking events. Resistance inevitably rises from containment.

At times, the father’s actions brought Josef Fritzl’s actions to mind but one of the strengths of this film lies in its insidious progression from a benign if deeply dysfunctional existence to horror. We are encouraged to despise the father’s attempts to infantalise, isolate and mislead his children and to sympathise with their plight and lack of autonomy. As such, the film is very timely, telling a compelling tale of the hideous consequences of fear, exclusion and social segregation.

Films about disability have much to learn from films such as this. The themes are powerful yet understated, the acting is superb and despite the disturbing events, the characters are exceptionally believable. The cinematography is striking in its realistic focus and scrupulous and unflinching attention to detail, telling us much of the story. Of particular note is a scene where the girls dance for their parents, presenting an utterly, utterly gripping portrayal of the elder daughter’s turmoil. This moment made my heart ache for the freedom of this girl from the suffocating shackles of protection. Best of all, the story is told with a deep, dark humour.

I have deliberately written little about the film’s content; this is definitely a film that you need to discover for yourself - although I really really want to tell you why it’s called Dogtooth. As I said there are no characters with impairments nor a trace of obvious disability themes. But I left this film with a renewed enthusiasm to fight fear and social exclusion. Without a doubt, this is the best and most powerful film I’ve seen this year.