Stray Dogs (12A) <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

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The Independent Culture

A friend of mine told me, in all seriousness, that he doesn't know why anybody watches anything but Iranian cinema. He, at least, will be excited to see this release from the house of Makhmalbaf (Meshkini is married to Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Iran's senior film director, and has worked as an assistant director to him and his daughter Samira, whose The Apple is probably the best-known Iranian film in the West).

Stray Dogs, Meshkini's second feature, is set in contemporary Kabul. It follows the lives of two young children whose parents are in prison - their father because he is a Taliban fighter, their mother because she remarried during his five-year absence as a soldier and is considered a whore. The children live by gathering scraps of wood and rubbish and selling them as fuel: by night, they sleep in their mother's cell, until a new rule forbids such visits. They decide to commit some crime and get themselves jailed; they are accompanied by a cute and highly symbolic dog that they rescued from a mob of murderous children.

Meshkini's strongest card is her non-professional cast - in particular, the little girl, Gol-Ghotai, has an extraordinary face, at once fierce, tragic, bitter and innocent. And the film does the incalculable service of bringing us news from elsewhere: you don't doubt for a moment that children do live lives like these. But it suffers from a sense of preordination - as though the story has been constructed around a mission and a set of moral points.