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SXSW Review: Musa Syeed’s Refugee Drama ‘A Stray’

SXSW Review: Musa Syeed's Refugee Drama 'A Stray'

During a time when unfounded vitriol and demonization of immigrants is becoming increasingly commonplace —thanks mostly to the hateful demagoguery of a certain presidential candidate— films that present an honest, straightforward look into the immigrant experience have become crucial. Apart from assured direction and strong performances, “A Stray” succeeds because even though it’s about a specific cultural group in the United States, it manages to depict universal, relatable truths about the plight of those newly arrived in the country.

READ MORE: 2016 SXSW Film Festival: 12 Films & TV Highlights To Look Out For 

Writer/director Musa Syeed’s film takes place in Minneapolis, which hosts a sizable Somalian immigrant community. The story, regarding a down-on-his-luck Somalian refugee named Adan (Barkhad Abdirahman), doesn’t shy away from showing the specific cultural conflicts a Muslim Somalian immigrant may face in the U.S., but the general issues depicted could easily apply to someone from any culture or country. Just like many people who leave their lives behind in order to start from scratch in the U.S., Adan tries to integrate into society while working to make a life for himself, all the while struggling to keep in touch with his culture and religion.

At first, Adan is directly responsible for his problems. After pawning his mother’s jewelry, he’s kicked out of his family’s home and is left on his own. A kind imam allows him to stay in a local mosque for a spell, until Adan decides to make an honest living by getting a job delivering food. On his first day, Adan realizes that always trying to do the right thing might not be as simple as it sounds. After hitting a stray dog with his delivery car, Adan decides to take care of her, despite being taught by his religion that dogs are filthy and untrustworthy. Unfortunately, Adan’s Muslim boss holds that view and fires him for bringing the dog to work.

The majority of the film focuses on Adan struggling to give the dog away while trying to find food and shelter for himself.  The symbolism of both Adan and the dog being unwanted by pretty much anyone around them is obvious, but Syeed employs a light touch metaphorically. It’s clear that Adan wants to find a home for the dog because he sees himself in her, and perhaps understands what it feels like to be seeking a place to call your own.

This minimalist story about the underclass, ignored by society at large and trying to achieve a very simple goal, will inevitably draw comparisons to Italian neo-realist films. And “A Stray” is not only stylistically connected to one of the most important movements in film history, but shares a narrative connection with its quintessential masterpiece “Umberto D.” Both films are concerned with someone who has been left behind by society as they endeavor to give away their dog. Of course, the stakes in “Umberto D” are higher, since the story is about a depressed professor trying to find a good home for his beloved dog so he can kill himself, but both films draw emotional power from the tale of a man who encountered very little kindness attempting to at least show kindness to a creature that’s even more vulnerable than him.

Barkhad Abdirahman played one of the Somali pirates in 2013’s excellent thriller “Captain Phillips,” and he shows his subtler, gentler side in this naturalistic performance. The film’s low budget indie cinematography sports a predictably clean digital look while adopting a fairly chaotic docudrama aesthetic, but the approach is balanced and doesn’t get in the way of drama. 

But one of the most glaring issues with “A Stray” is that it feels like the story is stretched to an ungainly feature length when it could have worked much better as a 20-30 minute short. After setting up Adan’s initial conflict, the film settles into a fairly episodic and predictable structure —at least Syeed appears to be aware of this shortcoming, with the film barely running over 80 minutes long. Even so, this second feature from the director looks like he still hasn’t shaken off an issue that plagues freshman directors: namely, trying to cram in too many ideas and ideologies into one film, due to the possible fear that they might not get another chance to get all of their messages across. Syeed occasionally cuts to the mainstream media’s depiction of immigrants and Syrian refugees, but an approach focusing only on Adan’s struggles could have worked better towards telling the bigger story of the immigrant experience through a smaller, more intimate lens.

Aside from these issues, “A Stray” is a worthy indie drama for anyone looking to get a new perspective on immigrant life in the U.S.. It’s recommended not only to fans of Italian neo-realism, but to those who dig early efforts by indie directors like such as Ramin Bahrani and Sean Baker. [B]

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