Samira Makhmalbaf’s At Five in the Afternoon can legitimately claim to have directly inspired two other films. Firstly, there was her sister Hana’s shrewd behind-the-scenes portrait Joy of Madness, and now her stepmother Marziyeh Meshkini’s Stray Dogs, which was inspired by the latter witnessing the plight of Kabul’s street children.
Gol-Ghotai and Zahed (both played by non-professional actors), are a pair of pint-sized siblings, forced to roam the streets of the Afghan capital because both their parents are in prison. Their mother (Agheleh Rezaie) is facing the death penalty for adultery; after her first husband had disappeared for five years, she assumed he had been killed and remarried to feed her children. Across town, the Americans have incarcerated their father for his Taliban allegiances. Desperate to join their mother, Gol-Ghotai and Zahed hatch a plan.
Paying open homage to De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief, Stray Dogs has a powerful immediacy thanks to its striking images of a devastated city. Meshkini has a strong eye for telling details, such as the gravediggers burning the frozen soil before digging graves or the VW Beetle car, marooned in a stretch of wasteland, containing a television playing footage of the 9/11 attacks. However, there’s an awkwardness to some of the dialogue exchanges, and the film does err towards sentimentality in its focus on the dog, whom the youngsters rescue from a baying mob.