10 November 2008

STRAY DOGS (Dir. Marzieh Meshkini, 2004, Iran/Afghanistan) - Post Taliban Cinema

This post Taliban odyssey through the tortured and wretched war torn landscape of Afghanistan acts like a companion piece to Bahman Ghobadi's tragic neo realist masterpiece 'A Time for Drunken Horses'. Marzieh Meshkini, wife of Iranian film maker Mohsen Makhmalbaf, directed her second feature, 'Stray Dogs', in 2004 using an entirely non professional cast of destitute Afghan street kids and by exploiting her own repeated visits to the country as a form of inspiration, she weaves together a loose, episodic narrative that unashamedly deals with indignation of having to survive in an unfortunate set of social, political circumstances, shaped by the forces of a regressive culture which is aided by a system of suffocating religious traditions.

Alongside 'Kahandar' and 'Osama', 'Stray Dogs' forms a cycle of post Taliban films that have been shot entirely on location in one of the most troubled regions and political hot spots in the world today. In an interview, the director cites the neo realist influences of the post war Italians especially De Sica's 1948 'Bicycle Thieves', and openly criticises the film's overt reliance on melodrama as a manipulative technique that distorts the principles theorised by Zavattini in his extensive Marxist writings on the new agenda for realism, social affects and didactic cinema.

It seems ironic that Iran of all places would most imaginatively champion the writings of Zavattini, fulfilling the purity of his aim to unmask the micro details of everyday reality by implementing a very simple story, just enough to ensure that the events and situations unfolding are a plausible and convincing extension of the settings. Such an honesty exists in much of the work produced by the Iranian New Wave, a movement that has been interpreted by some as the next step in the development of contemporary film language -Kiarostami, Panahi, Makhmalbaf are not simply world cinema auteurs in the truest sense of the word, they are pioneers in how they gracefully blurred the boundaries between fiction and reality, thereby reconstructing the idea of what constitutes 'self reflexive' cinema in today's postmodern age of irony and pastiche.

'Stray Dogs' features remarkably little attempts at melodrama and ensures the narrative never lapses into terrible Hollywood bouts of sentimentality by permitting the actions of the children to unfold with a degree of unpredictability that is both intentionally organic in its execution, and convincingly contextualised in a landscape trying desperately to imprison the remnants of a failed ultra religious society which has imploded under the strains of a series of absurd internal conflicts between warring factions. Interestingly, the face of the Taliban remains very much in the shadows, and is anchored in the figure of the orphaned children's father who is in jail, having become a prisoner of the newly installed government.

In the final sequence, the two children; Zahed and Gol-Ghotai are told to visit the local run down cinema and in a testament to the influence of De Sica, they watch 'Bicycle Thieves', and are inspired by Antonio's final moment of desperation to steal a bicycle. However, the fact that the hostile crowd Zahed encounters on the streets of Afghanistan are in no way as tolerant or forgiving as the one that appears at the end of De Sica's film. This perhaps is life imitating art, but 'Stray Dogs' seems to suggest that the leniency shown towards Antonio is far fetched and that such empathy is absent from a reality that offers very little, if any, hope for those who will forever exist on the fringes.

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