“Am I doing it wrong?…Will I have to wait for heaven to find a home?” – A Stray narration
Musa Syeed’s A Stray follows the quiet struggle of Adan, one of many Somali refugees who escaped the civil war and found their way to Minneapolis, USA. The film does not show, as one may expect, Adan’s struggle against the American people who may have their own preconceived ideas about Somali migrants. Rather, it portrays the difficulties of standing up to, or even entering, the system, and of Adan’s efforts to contemplate and find his place within the Somali diaspora in the city. Kicked out by his mother and belittled by his friends, Adan seeks refuge in the nearby mosque, where he is confronted with a religion he had nearly forgotten how to practice. It seems that his prayers are heard when a new friend offers him a job at a restaurant. However, when Adan hits a stray dog on the job, his new-found balance is once again unsettled as he is forced to take in the dog for the night and find it a home. Adan finds himself in a wandering limbo somewhere between the streets, his estranged family, old and new friends, the American homeless community, the mosque and the relentless inquiries of an FBI agent – with a doting dog as his only constant.
The film is about Adan, but also about the larger Somali refugee community, who are shown carving out a new American-Somali identity – making a new home where they have been forced from their own, and using food, language, art, poetry, religion and each other to do so. Syeed also subtly addresses a range of issues pertinent to the Somali refugee community – U.S. citizens’ misconception about their government support; the interruption of education by the civil war and the impractical methods used to place Somali children back in American schools; the hierarchies of language (why do we value only Western polyglots?); the complexities of a refugee diaspora supporting almost two thirds of their home country’s GDP by sending money back home and the effects that the official freezing of money transfers, because of the fear of terrorist money laundering, may have; and, of course, the relationship between dogs and the Muslim community.
However, the interweaving of Adan’s story with these complexities is artfully done and navigated with continual moments of humour. It is at once a personal story about a stray Muslim boy and a stray dog – taking care of each other – and, as a brief cut to a TV news clip of Syrian refugees remind us, a universal story of the movement of people across the globe to find safety in a fearful, foreign place where their home could not offer it. Continuous subtexts remind us about the luxuries of having and leaving home. A beautifully subversive scene shows Adan and his dog wandering into the ‘Nomad World Pub’ where (mostly) white travellers and pseudo-nomads drink beer and laugh, while Adan faces the real challenge of being a nomad confined to foreign borders and the dollars in his pocket.
This film is singularly important for the American, and more widely Western, audience in a current epoch of fear and anxiety about the influx of foreigners into ‘First World’ economies. In the first 20-30 minutes of the film, what struck me most is that this does not look like America. This is not the America we are meant to see – not in printed or televised news, not in politics, not in television programs, and certainly not in Hollywood movies (or even in many nouveau or art films). But it is. Musa Syeed brilliantly and truthfully portrays an American reality unknown to most and fearfully misconstrued by others. It is a Somali-American reality that encompasses the entire spectrum of humanity – love, loss, victories, defeats, acceptance and denial – in inspiring cinematic form.
A Stray screened at Film Africa 2016, the Royal African Society’s annual film festival which takes place from 28 October – 6th November.