Dir. MarziyehMeshkini. Iran. 2004. 93mins.

Put this one downalongside Bunuel's Los Olvidados, de Sica's Sciuscia or Babencos'Pixote as yet another devastating portrait of human folly and what itdoes to its most defenceless victims, its children.

Shot on theoutskirts of Kabul, in Afghanistan, by Marziyeh Meshkini, whose 2000 Venicedebut, The Day I Became a Woman, was applauded worldwide, it tells theheartbreaking but simple story of two homeless children, a brother and sister.With each parent in jail, the pair resort to scavenging on the city dumps andbegging for food in back alleys to survive.

A sorrowful image ofa world were everything, from ignorance and bigotry, abject poverty andnefarious Western intervention combine to create one of the worst contemporaryhuman tragedies, this should be compulsory viewing for schoolchildren,politicians and festivals alike (it played Toronto after competing at Venice).

It remains to beseen, however, whether commercial distributors, who have never worried aboutfake horror and mayhem, will be able to handle a dose of the real thing.

Meshkini, like therest of her family (once a student, she is now the wife of Iranian filmmakerMohsen Makhmalbaf) has dedicated much of her recent life to the Afghanistantragedy.

She first stumbledupon the material that forms the basis for Stray Dogs while assistingher step-daughter Samira shoot At Five In The Afternoon. Visiting aprison, she noticed children living inside with their convicted mothers.

It turned out theyhad no other place to go; by night they slept in prison cells, by day theyscrounged on the streets to eke out some form of existence for themselves andtheir imprisoned parents. But the prison authorities, unhappy with thearrangement, threw the children out. It is here that Meshkini's picture starts.

Zahed can't be morethan 10, and his sister, Gol Ghoti, is four or five. Their mother is in prison:she thought her husband, unheard of for five years, was dead and so remarried.Even though her second husband had died by the time her first returned, herefused to forgive her and had her put in jail.

But the childrencannot stay with him either, for the Americans have jailed him for being amember of the Taliban and are about to deport him to Guantanamo Bay. To joineither one or the other, the children are told, they have to commit a crime, bearrested and convicted themselves (the best way to find out how to do it isby watching Western movies, evenexemplary ones like The Bicycle Thieves). In the meantime they are leftto live or die by their wits. No one could care less about their fate.

Meshkini uses astyle akin to documentary film-making, setting the mood she wants with strikingdesert landscapes, dusty Kabul streets, a suffocating dump, dark prisons,scorching sun and freezing nights.

There can not bemany more distressing spectacles than the sight of countless children carryingbags on their backs and stuffing them with every piece of garbage they consideruseful.

As for the centralsiblings, they are an unforgettable pair, stubbornly struggling for survival,their innocent, wandering gaze trying to make sense of a world that has gonecompletely mad.

The picture'smetaphors can at times be needlessly transparent, like the hordes of kidschasing a mutt representing in their eyes the Infidel West that should be puton fire, or the book that is burned to provide some heat for an ailing baby.They can also be exceedingly insistent, like the brutal, prolonged sequence ofthe dogfights at the end.

But the ultimate effectis gruesomely real; a desolate, despairing image of a part of the world thathas, to its own distress, become over-exposed in recent years but remained asunder-privileged as it ever was.

Prod cos: Makhmalbaf Film House
Int'l sales:
Wild Bunch
Maysam Makhmalbaf
Marziyeh Meshkini
Ebtahim Ghafouri
Farrokh Fadei
Prod des:
Abkar Meshkini
Mohammad Reza Darvishi
Main cast:
Gol Ghoti, Zahed,Agheleh Rezali, Sphrab Akbari