A clever idea flies off the rails pretty quickly in Hicham Lasri’s unsubtle and uneasy meld of satire and political commentary, “They Are the Dogs.” Expectations run high at the energetic start, when an apathetic journalist covering protests in Casablanca sees a good story in an amnesiac man just released from prison, but the initially amusing conceit of the journalist’s reportage forming the actual pic wears thin, as Lasri bypasses modulation and merely barrels from one incident to another. Savvy auds — surely the target — will be left enervated and unenlightened, boding ill for extended fest play.
Still, Lasri’s growing rep as a director who pushes stylistic and thematic envelopes, combined with noted colleague Nabil Ayouch’s involvement as producer, is likely to attract attention. Nour Films plans a French release in early February, and home play is likely to generate animated debate, considering the implied critiques of the establishment marbled throughout.
One can’t fault Lasri for inconsistency, but that’s part of the problem. Lotfi (Yahya El Fouandi) is a suited journalist sent to report on political unrest with cameraman Hasska (Jalal Boulftaim) and their sound guy (Imad Fijjaj), but they’re all more interested in looking at pretty girls. The pic’s ploy is that what the lenser is shooting is also the film, so when the camera gets stolen by thugs, the viewer is taken on a bumpy ride as the news crew gives chase (they get it back, of course). Unfortunately the device becomes tiresome, since “They Are the Dogs” lacks the kind of variation necessary to sustain such a contrivance.
Lotfi notices Majhoul (Hassan Badida), an emaciated, confused man uninterested in being interviewed. After some badgering, the journo cobbles together enough info to realize that Majhoul has just been released from the slammer after 30 years as a political prisoner and, despite major gaps in his memory, is looking for his wife and kids. No reporter could pass up that kind of human-interest story, so Lotfi and crew promise to help piece together the puzzle and find Majhoul’s family.
Inserted throughout the shaggy-dog story are background radio and TV-news reports firmly situating the action in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. From crowds complaining about unemployment at home to descriptions of unrest in Libya, Syria and the like, the air is filled with discontent, yet it’s clear Lasri feels Moroccans haven’t done enough to shake up the establishment and demand change. As in his previous “The End,” he’s bogged down by oblique commentary that’s not as sly as he appears to think, though about the only subtlety here is an implied criticism of the monarchy leveled via purportedly neutral news stories.
“They Are the Dogs” does have a certain cool vibe that fits snugly into the deeply cynical, mordant take on contempo society coming out of the region, and on that level it can be seen as an interesting commentary on the failure of the recent unrest to change the status quo. Even more than in “The End,” there’s a level of aggression here that’s overwhelming, from common interactions between people to Lasri’s implied disgust with a large stratum of Moroccans too apathetic to effect change. The events that led to Majhoul’s arrest in 1981 are but a distant memory, and the pic’s chilling implication that current cries for freedom will also be crushed and forgotten is perhaps the strongest aspect of the helmer-scripter’s absurdist agitprop.
Shifts in p.o.v. maintain a caustic liveliness at the expense of emotional attachment. More interesting is the way Lasri plays with sound, cutting it off or drowning it out with electronic frequency (at the beginning). News is manipulation, he’s saying (as is film), and the only people interested in getting to the truth are doing it for the wrong reasons.