Stray Dogs Review
The latest film to come out of the impressive catalogue of the Makhmalbaf Film House is from Marziyeh Meshkini, the wife of Moshen Makhmalbaf (Kandahar) and mother of Samira (At Five In The Afternoon, The Apple) and Hannah Makhmalbaf (Joy Of Madness). Meshkini’s debut film The Day I Became A Woman was co-written with Moshen Makhmalbaf, and the three sections that made up the film, dealing with the circumstances of women of three different ages in Iran, seemed to owe much to her husband’s often elliptic and symbolic style of filmmaking, taking the form of a graduation project, demonstrating her ability with directing, pacing, storytelling, women’s issues and symbolism (intermediate level). While it has to be said that she passed that test with flying colours, her second feature, Stray Dogs, following the fate of two children in post-war Afghanistan, moves her work to a new level, one that surprisingly seems to have more in common with Italian neo-realism. Full marks must be awarded for application of theory yet again, but the uncommon use of an old style of filmmaking seems to bring out deeper resonances from the material.
Set in post-Taliban Afghanistan, a young boy Zahed and his sister Gol-Gothai, struggle to fend for them on the streets of Kabul, searching for scraps and wood on a rubbish tip for anything that might be salvageable or even used to burn for keeping warm on the cold winter nights. The children recognise their own circumstances in a stray dog that they rescue from a group of boys chasing it down the street with burning torches. The children are homeless, but are not orphans. Their father was a Taliban but he is now locked up in an American prison. Their mother is also in prison for having remarried when her husband disappeared for 5 years to fight a Holy War, a crime that will condemn her to being burned. Thanks to a friendly guard however, the children are able to spend the nights locked up in a prison cell with their mother, but when they are thrown out and left wandering the streets, the only means they can see of being re-united with her is to commit a crime themselves.
Evidently with this kind of setting and treatment, Stray Dogs is not at all cheerful viewing, but rather than wallow in the misery of the people of Afghanistan for cinematic drama, it rather brings out other characteristics and values, such as their strength, determination, compassion and defiance. This is particularly the case with the children, who are not there, as you might expect, to elicit sympathy – but as helpless individuals lost, homeless and without direction, they are a link through which we can see the same situation exists for everyone else, when the whole structure and fabric of society that the people have come to depend on to survive has disappeared. The performance of the children is amazingly effective. Evidently non-professional actors, they no doubt have experienced similar circumstances, and like Vittorio de Sica’s Shoeshine, what they have experienced and the marks it has left on them are something that cannot be acted. Beautifully photographed, the camera lingering on their faces for reactions, their presence fills the screen with an incredible emotional force.
The circumstances then suggest a perfect situation for an Italian neo-realist treatment – although perhaps applying such a style to modern Iranian film set in Afghanistan is not as obvious or as easy as Meshkini makes it appear. Like the scene in Bicycle Thieves when Antonio and his wife pawn their bed sheets, revealing a vast warehouse full of bed sheets from other destitute families, Meshkini finds other ways to represent the almost surreal aspect of where the war has left people, in a particular Iranian manner that is simple, subtle, symbolic and effective. Moreover it gives the film an added edge of fascinating and almost grotesque humour. The children spend one night sleeping in a handcart, spend most of the others in a prison cell, and when expelled from there, try to commit a crime to get back in. The lengths of criminality they go to also reach surreal levels, trading insults with a prison guard, stealing the head of a cow from a butcher and attempting to take a TV set showing a musical from a dust-covered VW Beetle isolated out in a wasteland that serves as someone’s home.
As you would expect from a film from the Makhmalbaf Film House, the strength of the script, the subject, the structure and the treatment is impeccable, underscored as it is by deep humanistic values and the filmmaker’s understanding of how to use the simplest methods to draw those qualities out. All the children want here are two things – forgiveness - for their father to forgive their mother, in other words for people to put the ways of the past behind them and move on – and shelter from the cold. Simple things, but not small things, they are however two commodities that seem to be increasingly in short supply in modern-day Afghanistan.
Stray Dogs is released in the UK by Artificial Eye. The disc is encoded for Region 2 and is in PAL format.
The video transfer of the film is excellent – not clinically perfect, but marvellous at capturing the tones, moods and colours of the film, with its variety of interior and exterior shots. There is some minor grain in the image and a little softness in places, but no more than would be appropriate for the nature of the photography. There are few marks of any kind and, even on a single-layer disc, there are no issues with compression artefacts. There is however some minor edge enhancement, but it is not often visible.
There are no problems with the audio track. Presented in Dolby Digital 2.0, the sound is clear and effective throughout.
English subtitles are provided, in a clear white font and are optional. They are a little thin and not strongly bordered, but there are few situations where they are not clearly readable.
The only extra features included here are a text Interview with Marziyeh Meshkini, where she talks about being inspired to work in Afghanistan after her experience as Assistant Director to Samira Makhmalbaf on At Five In The Afternoon, how she approached the film from a neo-realist viewpoint, casting the young non-professional actors, giving also her thoughts on the situation there in Afghanistan and in Iraq. A brief Filmography is also included.
As the explicit reference to Bicycle Thieves in the film makes clear, Stray Dogs owes a lot to Italian neo-realism, but this is not just some theoretical application of film technique. In showing that neo-realist techniques are still appropriate through its use of real post-war locations and non-professional actors, and by demonstrating just how powerful and remarkably effective those techniques can still be, it also shows us that what was true about peoples lives then is true also now. This is serious filmmaking that has something important to say about the lives of real people and about the world we live in today. Marziyeh Meshkini’s film tells us this with impressive simplicity, clarity, vitality, truthfulness and force.
Last updated: 19/04/2018 03:49:43