Stray Dogs (2004) Sag-haye velgard
Directed by Marzieh Meshkini
Afghanistan is in a state of total collapse, two young children, brother and sister survive as many other children do by collecting bits of wood and anything else that will burn to trade for a piece of bread or a petty amount of money. Unlike a lot of the other kids, their parents are still both alive and as well as could be expected, their father, a Taliban fighter is in a prison, their mother is also a prisoner. Her crime was to believe that her husband was dead after a five year absence and to marry somebody else, only to see her husband return, very much alive, in the eyes of the law she has committed a moral crime that could see her permanently incarcerated.
The children save a stray dog from a mob of kids who seem intent on burning it alive, and we follow their journey as they are refused entry into the prison holding their mother where they have previously been able to join her at night time. There must be somewhere for them to stay in relative safety but whichever way they turn there is no help for them at all. Their father could allow the release of the mother but he is so full of self-righteous piety that he ignores the pleas of his children. The mother appears to be full of woe but her concerns are purely out of self-pity, where is her love and care for her children? If it is there it certainly isnt visible.
Following advice from an older youth and hoping to be returned to their mother, the children decide to break the law and get arrested. However after several failed attempts they are on the verge of giving up when the same boy suggests that they should go to the local cinema where theyll see a film about a useless thief who gets arrested, they might find inspiration from it.
At the cinema there is a humorous scene as the ticket vendor advises them that its an art film which is really boring, if they dont like it therell be no refund. He also says that he cant wait to finish for the day so that he can go and watch a real film. Despite the warnings the kids watch and are entranced by The Bicycle Thieves. After watching the film the older brother enacts the last scene and in a direct copy of the film a large mob surrounds him until he is taken away by the police leaving his younger sister behind despite her protestations with no-one but the faithful dog for company.
The Stray Dogs of the title obviously refers to the children as well as the mongrel who proves to be the best and most natural performer in the film. The two children are fine, the little girl is a natural, but there are problems with several other cast members the blame for which along with a few other little things must lie firmly on the shoulders of the director.
Right at the start I began to wonder if Id made a huge mistake spending two hours in the rain just to see the film, the mob, having caught the dog in a pit start making abusive remarks before trying to burn it alive. The problem is the ringleader who shouts the abuse, mostly concerning the American, British and Russian armies sounds as though hes reading off a cue card, there is absolutely no emotion at all, its as though the only reason he was picked because he had the biggest mouth.
We see the children in prison with their mother, a female guard passes and tells them to quiet down and get to sleep, yeah, fine as it goes but despite this being a big prison you dont hear the guard again, until a few minutes later when the guard appears in exactly the same place and says exactly the same line despite the fact that everyone is laying down and trying to sleep. Guess what, a couple of minutes later, the same guard from the same direction saying exactly the same again! I started wondering if the Monty Python team were directing the film, the repitition became humorous and almost surreal.
Talking of surreal, there are several other directorial faux pas that standout and a few things which are quite weird, strange when so much of the film has an almost documentary type approach, but it does give the film quite a unique feel.
Overall then, a nice tribute to neo-realism especially De Sica with the viewing and enactment of the scene from Bicycle Thieves plus the trusty canine companion re: Umberto D, the problems of the children also brought back memories of "Grave of the Fireflies" but thankfully it isn't as tragic as that amazing anime.
Despite the flaws and my misgivings particularly towards the start of the film I would recommend it. I did leave the cinema happy that Id made the effort to see Stray Dogs.
BBFC rated 12a, which surprised me considering the level of cursing in the film.