Very much in the tradition of Makhmalbaf Film House productions, Marziyeh Meshkini’s “Stray Dogs” expresses concern over Afghanistan’s poor and disinherited in its drama about two young children left to fend for themselves on the streets of Kabul. But unlike the Iranian director’s sharp-edged feature debut “The Day I Became a Woman,” here the sentiment turns saccharine and the images, while as strong as ever, are disturbingly obvious in trying to provoke a reaction from the audience. Still, this direct approach will appeal to some arthouse auds, just not the fans of more sophisticated Iranian product.
This is also one of the first films to show American tanks rumbling through the streets and the effect of U.S. occupation on the populace during Afghan reconstruction. It might seem logical, then, that Meshkini’s aesthetic reference point is Italian post-war neorealism; one scene openly quotes Vittorio De Sica’s classic “The Bicycle Thief.” But good intentions aside, De Sica in his prime is a difficult act to follow and the sentimentality that he handled so masterfully in 1948 looks forced and old-fashioned here.
In today’s Kabul, little Gol-Ghotai and her slightly older brother Zahed are two pint-sized angels with matted hair and dirty faces. In an opening scene that would be scary if it weren’t so obviously staged, they rescue a cute little terrier from a crowd of boys who want to burn it to death. Screaming that the dog is anti-Taliban, the boys menace it with flaming torches until Gol-Ghotai miraculously whisks it away from danger.
She and Zahed take the animal with them that night to a towering prison where their mother (Agheleh Rezaii) is jailed and where they sleep at night. Their father, a Taliban who disappeared for five years during the war, is in an American army prison. Their mother, believing their father dead at the time, remarried to feed them but now their father has charged her with adultery, a capital offense. She desperately instructs little Gol-Ghotai to visit him and get him to drop charges before she’s executed.
All this should be far more moving than it is, but Meshkini’s flat, pseudo-documentary style of repeating the same dialogue two or three times over effectively drains the scene of emotion.
The father eventually refuses to save his ex-wife, and the children are turned out on the street by prison authorities. They embark on an odyssey through wintertime Kabul to find a place to spend the night. Even the wooden boxes that offer shelter to the city’s street urchins are off limits to Gol-Ghotai because she’s a girl. At last they decide that the only warm place is jail and clumsily try to get arrested for petty thefts. In film’s final outcry against injustice, their plan backfires and they are separated.
Meshkini has a good eye for detail and with cinematographer Ibrahim Ghafouri she poetically invokes the Afghan city. Ragamuffin children swarming around a garbage dump scrounging for things to sell, or a ferocious dog fight that seems to materialize out of nowhere, have a documentary immediacy and horror that stick in the mind.
Rezaii, the lead actress in Samira Makhmalbaf’s “At Five in the Afternoon,” is chillingly severe as the doomed mother. The children’s faces express enormous courage and determination, qualities that might have been better served if they weren’t forced to trail a barking dog from scene to scene.