They Are the Dogs (C’est eux les chiens): Dubai Review

Filmmaker Hicham Lasri brings a fine sense of ironic comedy to a bizarre story.

A man who has been secretly detained for 30 years by Moroccan authorities is suddenly released during the Arab Spring.

As is evident from the new work that has been screening this year, feature filmmakers are leery of directly representing the Arab Spring. Instead, films like They Are the Dogs search for roundabout, ironic ways of approaching the current climate of change and instability. Here, a surreal story walks the line between history and farce, human interest and media cynicism. However, the wild comic energy in the first half gets depleted as the film goes on and the funny business unwinds. The saving grace is Hassan Badida’s consummate comic performance in the main role. More topical, intriguing and generally successful than writer-director Hicham Lasri’s punkish first feature, The End, Dogs has been making the rounds of specialized fests since it bowed in Cannes ACID earlier this year, picking up awards in Cordoba and Rabat.

It’s 2011 and a dispirited film crew is on the street taping sound bites from protesters at a demonstration in downtown Casablanca. They hear banal things like, “Why are we protesting? Because life is too expensive.” But they turn out to be fateful words: the same that launched bread riots in the city in 1981, when widespread hunger caused people to revolt. During this earlier turmoil, a man had walked out of his home to buy some training wheels for his son’s bike and found himself scooped up by the police as a subversive. Thirty years later he is abruptly released, and the TV crew finds him wandering among the crowd in a daze, unable to remember his own name, only his prison number: 404. A tall, emaciated fellow in a ragged plaid jacket, he has the same droll, slightly batty expression as the late, great Portuguese actor-director Joao Cesar Monteiro, whom he physically resembles.

The pompous TV journalist, grumpy old cameraman and young soundman slowly realize there’s a big story here. They promise to help the man locate his wife and kids if he’ll agree to an interview, which he continually puts off. Since everyone believes he’s dead, the search for his family is not an easy one, and the deadpan script throws in setbacks like an old friend having a heart attack when he hears the man is still alive. Gradually 404 becomes obsessed about finding out what remains of his past, and confusion gives way to determination.

Lasri and photography director Ali Benjelloun take the risk of shooting everything from the TV camera’s POV, which distances the action. But it is a cleverly used device, particularly funny in a classic scene when a thief steals the camera and everyone starts running after him. Too bad that this very promising energy and humor unravel. The TV crew turns into a total caricature, leaving the viewer only interested in the old man. But Badida’s 404 never seems to lose his kooky steam, flailing his arms wildly to fight off tormentors or express his joy in a little dance.

Morocco’s political situation furnishes a serious undercurrent to 404's personal drama. The men who “disappeared” in 1981 have now been forgotten, but the winds of revolt are still around. Lasri winds it up nicely in a low-key final scene.

Venue: Dubai Film Festival (Muhr Arab Feature competition), Dec. 9, 2013.
Production company: Ali n’ Films
Cast: Hassan Badida, Yahya El Fandi, Imad Fijaj, Jalal Bouftaim
Director: Hicham Lasri
Screenwriter: Hicham Lasri
Producer: Nabil Ayouch
Executive producer: Frantz Richard
Director of photography: Ali Benjelloun

Editor: Safaa Baraka
No rating, 85 minutes.