Hounddog is a tragedy of a film. It’s a tragedy, on one level, because it is quite simply an artistic disaster. But mostly it is a tragedy because of the way it uses and abuses its starring actress—the then 12-year-old Dakota Fanning.
Brett McCracken for Christianity Today
On paper this film sounds like it wouldn’t cause any controversy, Hounddog is a drama set in the American South, where a troubled young girl finds a safe haven in the music and movement of Elvis Presley. However, Deborah Kampmeier‘s 2007 film did cause controversy. Even before the film’s first screening at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival, a Christian film critic, citing Fanning’s age, decried the movie as child abuse, and Roman Catholic activist Bill Donohue called for a federal investigation. The cause of the upset was a certain scene where the main character played by a then 12-year-old Dakota Fanning is raped. There were demands for the director to be thrown in jail, death threats and the cast had to attend festivals with a security guard for their own protection.
Kampmeier has said that it took her a decade to get the film made, largely because of the rape scene, but cutting it was a compromise that she was unwilling to make. And in an interview she expressed how the sheer fact that her film took so long to be made proves how taboo this subject still is within our society. “This issue is so silenced in our society. There are a lot of women who are alone with this story… When you’re shooting a film, it’s the images you line up next to each other that create a story… If you have a hand hitting the ground, Dakota screaming ’stop’ and you see a zipper unzip — that creates a rape.”
The ”controversial” scene lasts a few minutes, and is not graphic despite what you might have been led to believe. There is no nudity, the scene is very darkly lit and only Fanning’s face and hand are shown. The rape sequence, though very harrowing and disturbing, is discreetly shot. Fanning was protected during the filming, and it was carefully edited. Yes, the scene is uncomfortable to watch especially because Fanning does look young, fragile and vulnerable, but compared to the actual brutal and horrific actions that many children are subjected to on a daily basis, the film’s brief scene seems tame. The fact is that girls and boys are subjected to sexual abuse in the real world, and seeing Fanning’s performance on-screen and her story unfold, may in fact inspire victims to come forward.
In an interview Kampmeier gave some insight into the shooting process behind the rape scene, stating that “The scene was never run through from start to finish; it was shot in increments, over and over, never in a single take. The construction creates the impression of the violence, but doesn’t represent the feeling on the set or something that might have traumatized Dakota, especially since there had been so much rehearsal.” However despite this explanation and in-depth breakdown of the filming process, there were still those that chose to ignore it,
Ted Baehr, chairman of the Christian Film and Television Commission claimed that Hounddog breaks federal child-pornography law, and says that the law covers material that “appears” to show minors engaging in sexually explicit conduct. “Even if they’re not actually performing the explicit act, we are dealing with a legal issue here,” he said during an interview. Baehr believes that the actress Dakota Fanning was exploited in the film, and that it should be considered an outrage. “Children at 12 do not have the ability to make the types of decisions that we’re talking about here. If we’re offended by some comedian’s racial slur, why aren’t we offended by somebody taking advantage of a 12-year-old child?”
Kampmeier said she talked with the children and their parents but didn’t go into great detail with the young actors about the content (whether this was the right thing to do is still debatable). “I didn’t manipulate these children or explain to these children what was going on.” Kampmeier stated in an interview, going on to say that she didn’t make set out to make Hounddog to make a social commentary, and wrote the film” from my heart, and if it touches someone else’s heart now that it has become a controversial film and is dealing with a lot of social issues … I am really trying to embrace that.” However, despite this, many still shunned the film upon its release and even sent death threats to the director!
In regards to whether Fanning was mislead, Fanning said she and Kampmeier talked for months before the film was shot and spent a day painting pottery together and discussing the story, which mae her feel relaxed and reassured. “It’s not really happening,” Fanning said of a rape. “It’s a movie, and it’s called acting. I’m not going through anything. Cody and Isabelle aren’t going through anything, their characters are. And for me, when it’s done it’s done.I don’t even think about it anymore.” Dakota Fanning went on to say in an interview that the film was no more taxing than her role in the horror film “Hide and Seek.” and stated the following, “It’s really no different than playing any other character. I’m still not playing myself. I get to experience different things people go through without going through them myself, which is no different from watching a news story and learning from that. It’s an emotionally moving movie, and I hope people enjoy it.”
Of course some film directors and producers will exploit children for their own personal gain, but Kampmeier seems to be honest and open about what was required from Fanning, and what her role required. Hounddog is a slow and very steady film, which may put people off if they were expecting something far more explicit from what they may have read in the press, but the film seems to benefit from its gradual build up of drama. The film will never be able to shake off its controversy, but of course any publicity is good publicity, right?
What do you think? Did Hounddog cross the line or not? Please let us know in the comments.