STRAY DOGS (Marzieh Mishkini, 2004)

On the bombed streets of Kabul, on their own, a young brother and sister, Zahed and Gol-Ghotai, along with countless other children, scavenge to survive. The pair discover a charred book; like wood scraps, this can be sold for burning—for heat. The U.S.-Taliban war in Afghanistan—punctuating shots show a U.S. plane high in the sky—has purged books of their informative, educational and sacred uses: a transformation of the children’s future. Zahed and Gol-Ghotai rescue a little dog that, in a scene suggesting James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931), is being targeted by a mass of torch-wielding children who want to burn it for being a “foreign dog,” a U.S. invader, a Russian invader, whatever—really, a painful reminder of the childhood that has been ripped from their lives. Everything is ripe for burning. Both of Zahed and Gol-Ghotai’s parents are in separate prisons. A Taliban, their father is being moved to a U.S. prison; his five years’ absence led their mother to remarry, making her in the eyes of the law “a whore.” She pleads with her children to get their father to withdraw the charge against her without revealing the reason for her desperation: it is likely she will be stoned or possibly burned alive for her “crime.”
     Sag-haye velgard is the second of three films by Iranian writer-director Marzieh Meshkini, about whose The Day I Became a Woman (2000) I have already written. (Meshkini is Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s wife and Samira Makhmalbaf’s stepmother.) Its subject is a mainstay of cinema: for children especially, the dislocations of war.
     Much of the film is taken up, sometimes wittily deadpan, by the two children’s efforts to get themselves admitted into prison, first, as their mother’s overnight cell-mate and, later, as prisoners themselves, for which Zahed attempts a series of public thefts. The children simply want to be close to their mother; but, for the longest time, Zahed’s actions get him beaten a lot but not arrested and jailed. Repetitious sequences will remind Westerners of the myth of Sisyphus—Meshkini’s principal means of shortcircuiting sentimentality. One bravura sequence elliptically conjoins one snippet after another of the children’s efforts to join their mother for the night.
     This strong, elegant piece of work envisions children’s adaptability and resourcefulness, on the one hand, and the limits to these, on the other. With the assistance of Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948), Zahed is finally imprisoned; but he is inadvertently separated from his younger sister, who is left entirely on her own, and he himself winds up in a prison other than the one he had set his sights on. It is all funny in a way, but not in any way we wish to contemplate. Meshkini comes close to devastating us.
     Zahed (who plays Zahed) is wonderful, and Gol-Ghotai (who plays Gol-Ghotai) is even more amazing (best actress, Paris). Twiggy, as the pooch, is a constant reminder of childhood innocence, especially in closeup inserts.
     Prize of the international critics at Singapore; Open Prize, Venice.

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