“Do you understand?”, the wild-eyed little girl keeps asking the stray dog that she has taken for a pet, as she tries to explain the intricacies of her present predicament, the theological concept of hell, and the need to pray for divine intervention.
It is not clear that the girl herself understands, let alone the dog, but then there is so much that defies rational comprehension in the all-too-real hell that has been left behind for the unwanted of Afghanistan after 25 years of civil strife, foreign occupation and repressive regimes. For the title of Marziyeh Meshkini’s Stray Dogs (or Sag-Haye Velgard) encompasses not just the girl’s canine companion, but also the women and children who are the film’s human characters, all desperate for food, shelter, warmth and love in a harsh and unforgiving place.
By day seven-year-old Gol-Ghotai and her slightly older brother Zahed rummage through the rubbish dumps with Kabul’s other children, in search of anything they can sell or use for fuel; but when the sun goes down they become ‘night prisoners’, joining their mother (Ageleh Rezaii) in her jail cell. There she continues serving a sentence for adultery so long as her bitter first husband, an abusive Taleban (also in prison), refuses to forgive her for remarrying during his own five-year absence. When a new governance excludes the children from all access to their mother, Zahed and their adopted pet dog find themselves living dangerously on the streets, and decide that the best way to get back into prison is to commit crime. Try as they might, however, their acts of theft keep backfiring as no-one seems to want to arrest them – until, that is, they all too successfully steal ideas on how to get caught from an old arthouse film.
At the beginning of Stray Dogs, a cute-looking pooch is set upon by a mob of children who are convinced (absurdly, if tellingly) that it is an agent either for the English, Russian or American forces. The sequence sketches with great economy a new generation still traumatised by the repeated invasions of recent history, and desperately needing a scapegoat to purge its inner wounds. In rescuing the same dog and undertaking to look after it, Gol-Ghotai and Zahed exhibit an empathy that holds out some sort of promise for the future; whereas the film’s adult characters, by contrast, seem interested in dogs only for their ability to fight. And so, like the recent Bombon (El Perro) and The Cave of the Yellow Dog, Meshkini’s film uses dogs as a gauge of the humanity of its various characters, and as a mirror of the tensions within a culture.
Stronger still, though, is the influence on Stray Dogs of Vittorio de Sica’s The Bicycle Thief, the film that in the end directly inspires the children’s ill-fated criminality. Both films could be described as neo-realist, both are set in a background of post-war hardships, and both end tragically (albeit rather differently) with the theft of a bike and a subsequent arrest. Yet offsetting the devastating bleakness of the sequence with which Stray Dogs closes is a final line that, for all its navet, also resounds with a note of near triumphant defiance. Like her dog, Gol-Ghotai may not understand the awful world around her, but there is something in her spirit that seems indomitable, giving hope where hope is in very short supply.
Iranian director Meshkini’s second feature (after The Day I Became a Woman) is a richly picaresque journey to childhood’s end through the dusty streets of Kabul. It is full of haunted characters and haunting images, but best of all are the performances by the non-professional cast. Gol-Ghotai, in particular, is mesmerising, and would seem to have a much brighter future ahead of her than her namesake in the film. One can only hope.