Dogborn is a suspenseful examination of the complexity of victimization

The twins (Silvana Imam’s sister and Philip Oros’ brother) have had nothing since the death of their mother. No house. No jobs. No money. Brother doesn’t even have a voice, not since they left Syria a long time ago. It is therefore up to Sister to manage for both of them. Find places to squat, work her way into odd jobs to get paid, and build relationships she can hopefully fall back on when things get even tougher than they already are. That’s why it’s nice to have someone like his cousin Petri (Lukas Malinauskas) watching. He works for a big contractor, Yann (Henrik Norlén), who might need a duo as desperate and unstable as these soft-spoken but tenacious punchers. And they’re only happy to oblige. Until they discover their task.

Writer-director Isabella Carbonell talks about wanting dog born to portray the complexity of unhappy souls caught up in the dark world of its setting. Sister and brother are not just two-fingered criminals ready to get their hands dirty without recognizing the moral implications of the tasks for which they are recruited. And Big Sister (Emma Lu) and Little Sister (Mia Liu) aren’t just helpless victims to be abused or saved, forever at the whim of those in control. Putting these four together therefore gives them the autonomy to change not only their own situation, but also that of the other pair. Because Yann’s need for drivers to operate his “delivery service” does not depend on experience; it requires fidelity. It is necessary when the “goods” transported are young women.

The sister’s penchant for saying how they’ll “do anything” is called into question almost immediately after they arrive at Petri’s for their first shift. They were told to get in the van before it was loaded, they don’t know what to think when they hear what sounds like women being forced into the back. The noise while driving gets so loud that Sister has to pull over to see what they’re dealing with, only to unwittingly let one of her captives out. Does she let her go? Does she catch up, apologize and go to the police? Or does it grab it, reject it, and continue on to its destination? It’s not really a choice, at least not yet. Yann orchestrated things in such a way that the impulse automatically prevails over the thought.

Where she and Brother fool around thinking they’re doing nothing wrong with adults, however, it is much more difficult when tomorrow’s “product” is a pair of children. It doesn’t get any more tense than watching Sister and Brother watch Big Sister and Little Sister as if they’re involved in a contest to see who turns away first. The former duo know what they’re being asked to do is wrong; this latter duo have armed themselves to see if their jailers will blink and prove they are friends rather than foes. Sister making the decision to put on a change of clothes before escorting the girls into the van eventually triggers everything that follows. She chose her destiny. And she also chose theirs.

It’s a suspenseful affair because we know Sister will eventually find a line she won’t cross. The question becomes whether it will be time to run away. ‘Cause the moment she rises to fight for something – rather than just an excuse to punish yourself – is when the stakes rise even higher. It is then that we discover how ruthless Yann is under the persona of “father of the family” that he has cultivated. It is also when we discover the courage of Big Sister. Give her a reason to fight for her sister and for herself without fear of retaliation and she will burn the world down without batting an eyelid. However, this will not excuse what has already been done – forgiveness requires more than “doing the right thing”.

Consequently, the comparison between brothers and sisters is not unequivocal. Yes, Sister and Big Sister are the protectors of their respective duos – Brother tends to get lost in thought; Little Sister is only about six years old, but what they are to their companions doesn’t negate what they are to each other. Sister is Big Sister’s kidnapper. Sister facilitated the abuse Big Sister faced. Helping her now will never erase that fact, nor set her free. Carbonell’s refusal to budge on this issue makes Sister the anti-hero that she is – conflicted, remorseful, and lost. Story progression, then, is not about glorifying his later actions, which will always pale in comparison to his earlier actions. Sister cannot be absolved. And Big Sister says she won’t.

That doesn’t mean they can’t have fun turning Yann’s world upside down, though. The scene that Carbonell stages is rich – Yann’s clients are rich and have everything to lose. You could say this truth means he would never hire Sister in the first place, but that’s a limiting thought. Yann operates on control. When he sees someone who is desperate, he does not see someone he cannot trust; he sees someone he can break. Yann treats his employees like dogs, demanding loyalty and deploying extreme violence when it’s not given. He honestly doesn’t care if Sister ruins things – he can just kill her and find another – and doesn’t care if his clients have their lives ruined. Disturbed fetishists are not uncommon.

Disturbed is also an understatement, given the reasons for some clients’ actions (Kjell’s inclinations to Hannes Meidal are based on a much worse desire than originally assumed). With money comes fear, however. They are sexually violent men, but maybe not physically violent when someone is knocking down the tables to come after their. It means something to see these predators reduced to tears as their victims stoically advance. It is this juxtaposition that dog born is about. Carbonell uses this serious problem not to preach a solution or exploit it for entertainment. She uses it to show the complexity of victimization and the clear delineations within her hierarchy. Sister and brother have it wrong. Big and Little Sister have it worse. And our silence is complicity.

dog born world premiere in the Settimana section of the Venice International Film Festival.

Sharon D. Cole