SXSW Film Review – A Stray
A Stray, directed by Musa Syeed (Valley of Saints), is about the symbiosis of faith in God and in oneself. It is about a man being both a stray and astray, bobbing anchorless across a sea far from home.
For Adan (Barkhad Abdirahman), a young Somali immigrant living in a sprawling Minneapolis housing project, the security he finds within his ethnic community finally runs out after he exhausts the patience of his friends and family. His mother turns him out of their apartment for supposedly stealing money and jewelry. The generosity of his friend, Jay (Faysal Ahmed) now depends on Adan doing menial work such as cleaning the toilet. When Adan lets Jay’s bird out of its cage and it accidentally flies into a window and dies, Adan runs away in fear and shame. Trapped in a cage within a room of glass – that’s Adan in the city he now must survive on foot. As an immigrant, he feels constrained by the invisible borders of his neighborhood, as venturing out means confronting barriers of education, culture, and prejudice.
In search of spiritual succor, he wanders into a local Da’Wah Center and tries to sleep while the men complete their prayers. He watches them for a while, then hesitantly participates in the corner. One can sense he is frustrated at how to participate in prayer both communally and personally, and his loneliness only compounds his turmoil. The sheikh, Imam (Hassan Ali Mohammed), recognizes the young man’s need for sanctuary and lets him stay, praying over him for guidance and friendship, and soon enough Adan makes a new friend at the mosque. Faisal (Jamaal Farah) offers to help him with some clothes and a job delivering food from his restaurant.
Throughout the film, director Syeed frames Adan within the context of people eating together.
Scenes both in Jay’s apartment and Faisal’s restaurant show people enjoying Somali dishes of spiced rice and meat while Adan remains on the periphery, first excluded from the meal and then serving customers but not partaking and later delivering a large order to a suburb in Faisal’s car. It is here that he almost hits a dog in the street and slams the brakes, sending the rolls flying onto the floorboards. As a Muslim, Adan considers a dog’s saliva to be unclean, and he limits direct contact with the animal itself, instead covering it with his newly bought shirt. Once Faisal finds out that Adan brings the dog back to his restaurant as well as ruined the catering order, he casts both of them out and Adan sees his new fortune dissipate before his eyes.
Could the dog be a punishment? How long must his atonement last? As the man and the dog wander the streets together, desperate for sleep and food, they form an unlikely connection. Adan carries it, which he names Laila, in a sports bag, both of them watching college kids troll the local bars. That could have been him, he says aloud, but his English (one of four languages he speaks) wasn’t good enough after high school. Just one more window he butts his head against. Clearly, Adan is debating his worth in the world, as his only usefulness seems to be from an FBI agent named Knudsen (Christina Baldwin) who needs him to translate phone recordings and emails from immigrants, including some of his friends, whom she is surveilling. He criticizes the American preoccupation with dogs; at least his people keep animals such as camels and goats which serve a purpose.
He is dragging so many invisible, broken strings from living in “too many places” and “los(ing) too many people” that they weigh him down as he slogs through the streets with the shoulder bag. He visits a Somali museum with exhibits of jewelry, textiles, pottery, figurines, and artwork. Photographs of African men and women smiling, posing with tools, and braiding hair stare back at him contrary to television footage of hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing their wartorn home, or immigrants in America fighting for their right to proper housing. He misses the feeling of home, wherever it may be, as he looks at a tiny replica of a farm and smooths the dirt with his fingers.
Throughout his sojourn through the Minneapolis streets, Adan prays to God to send him answers, and God replies through people who help him such as Imam and a young woman named Munira (Ifrah Mansour) who works in Social Services. He regains a spiritual connection to the earth in the dirt, sun, and wind, and ultimately realizes his salvation comes through trying.