Childhood innocence crashing with a world of great violence is an ongoing motif this season among some of the Oscar foreign film language whether its the teenager who discovers his former military father’s great sin in Bulgaria’s The Judgment to Hungary’s entry, Son of Saul, which follows a father yearning to give the proper burial for his son at a concentration camp. Sivas from Turkey follows the unlikely friendship formed between a young boy and a fighting dog.
Sivas director Kaan Müjdeci had previously made a documentary about the brutal subculture of fighting dogs and became fascinated with “the exploration of the dog-human relationship” as he told Deadline’s Dominic Patten last night at the Awardsline screening. When it came time to make Sivas, Müjdeci scouted close to 1,000 kids from the region, ultimately selecting his two leads just three days before filming began.
What resulted was a powerful performance from Dogan Izci, 11 years old at the time, who had never acted before. Izci won best actor at the Venice Film Festival, where Sivas premiered back in September. Müjdeci consulted with a child psychologist to find the proper technique to work with these kids, and there was no monitor used during most of production, as the director was right behind the camera, up next to the actors, coaching them through it and providing lines. Müjdeci noted that much of the film is shot in handheld style because children are notoriously challenging to photograph, for their unpredictability.
On screen, Izci is big, swearing loudly at adults twice his size and giving a masterful first performance. One scene that resonated with the young actor entailed him on a roof, stripped down to his underwear and throwing rocks at his older brother in an angry fight, after realizing that his brother is trying to sell his beloved dog.
With a film of this subject matter and stylistic realism, there are obviously big questions that come to mind immediately—How did the director and his crew manage to shoot the dog fighting scenes with any degree of realism while managing to protect the animals involved?
It turns out that the crew applied lotion to the dog’s teeth to prevent real bites, and dosed them with alcohol-infused liquid to slow them down, preventing them from hurting one another. Moreover, the fight scenes were carefully choreographed, and make-up was layered in to create the illusion of continuity.
The dog in question was the Anatolian shepherd, a very specific kind of breed that has been raised to take on a protective role, and has remained a totally pure breed throughout history.
Said Müjdeci, “The production company coined the idea to actually have a lot of backup dogs—up to 15, but I treated these dogs as characters with their own personalities, so I wanted to go with only one single dog on this film.
Sivas made its world premiere at the 2014 Venice International Film Festival where it won the special jury prize for Best Actor.