'Starve Your Dog': TIFF Review

Starve Your Dog Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival
Waiting for Godard.

Morrocan director Hicham Lasri summons some notorious evil spirits from his country's troubled history in this visually dazzling experimental essay film.

Falling somewhere between a docudrama movie, an art installation and an avant-garde theater piece, the latest uncompromising work by Moroccan auteur Hicham Lasri is almost certainly the most maddeningly pretentious world premiere at this year's Toronto Film Festival. But it is also a boldly ambitious experiment, full of arrestingly beautiful images and innovative in-camera effects that ensure it is always visually ravishing, even when the narrative becomes opaque and impenetrable. Lasri describes Starve Your Dog as the second chapter in a trilogy launched two years ago with They Are The Dogs, which screened in the ACID sidebar in Cannes. The canine titles are purely metaphorical. No dogs were harmed in the making of this movie.

Unfolding like an extended psychedelic hallucination, the plot is a montage of crazy-paving images set to a queasy musical backdrop of constant thumps, clangs and crackles. Combining stylistic echoes of veteran nouvelle vague masters like Jean-Luc Godard and Agnes Varda with an ultra-vivid, high-contrast color palette that recalls the work of Australian cinematographer Christopher Doyle, Starve Your Dog is an emphatically surreal oddity pitched at ultra-niche arthouse and festival crowds. But it is noteworthy as part of a growing body of films addressing the aftermath of the Arab Spring in an arty, non-naturalistic manner.

Documentary, drama, visual poetry and old newsreel footage are all woven together in the episodic opening act. An old woman rages at the camera in a Casablanca square, protesting about poverty and hunger, wishing for an earthquake to flatten all of Morocco as divine punishment.  A shifty-looking man in a raincoat bursts into song at the side of a busy road before dousing his cellphone in gasoline and torching it. A mad young woman skips through the streets, lifting her skirt for strangers in return for money. Text scrolls across the screen in English and Arabic quoting from Shakespeare, Daft Punk and serial killer John Wayne Gacy.

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When it finally gels into a vaguely coherent plot, the drama centers on a tense clandestine interview between washed-up TV journalist Rita (Latefa Ahrrare) and Driss Basri (Jirari Ben Aissa), who served as Morocco's much-feared Interior Minister for two bloody decades. Their meeting, in a noisy makeshift studio, is interrupted by technical problems, loud background noises, a failed assassination attempt and angry objections from film crew members whose families suffered terribly when Basri was in power.

The real Basri was a notorious government enforcer in Morocco's recent past, during the repressive period dubbed the Years of Lead. He became right-hand man to King Hassan II, masterminding the arrest, abduction, jailing and murder of political opponents. Exiled to France when Hassan's son Mohammed VI took over in 1999, ushering in a more democratic regime, Basri died in Paris in 2007. But Lasri's fanciful fable rewrites the facts, instead placing him under house arrest for the last 15 years. Now he has broken cover, apparently planning to spill the secrets that Morocco's current rulers would rather keep hidden. It's a neat conceit, allowing Starve Your Dog to draw uncomfortable parallels between the old and new regimes.

Although non-local viewers will likely miss all the political and historical resonances, Starve Your Dog still offers an absorbing feast for the senses. Lasri and cinematographer Said Slimani shoot in an almost Cubist manner, filling the screen with multiple overlapping images using reflective surfaces, background projections and wonky Godard-ian framing. All this is soundtracked by a musique concrete collage of song fragments, telephone ringtones, disembodied voices and other disquieting noises.

Feeling more like a sketchbook of great stylistic ideas than a fully realized drama, Starve Your Dog is an endurance test in places, never quite shaking off the feel of a dazzling film-student experiment. But once you surrender to its idiosyncratic mannerisms it becomes a quietly mesmerizing statement of intent from a strong new voice in Arab cinema.

Production Companies: Pan Production, Matrice Media
Cast: Latefa Ahrrare, Jirari Ben Aissa, Fehd Benchemsi, Jalila Temlsi, Adil Abatorab, Salma Eddlimi
Director, screenwriter: Hicham Lasri
Cinematographer: Said Slimani
Editor: Mickael Clouet
Sound: Patrice F. Mendez
Music: Loonope, Jauk Armal
Producers: Hicham Lasri, Hossein Malki, Mickael Clouet
Sales company: Paul Thiltges Distribution
Rated 18A, 94 minutes