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In A Stray, Adan, a young, homeless Somali immigrant played by Barkhad Abdiarhman (Captain Phillips) is paired with a homeless dog. This compelling film, written and directed by Musa Syeed, is only his second narrative feature. Syeed, clearly influenced by the neo-realism of the great Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray, chose to center his story in a community of Muslim Somalians living in Minnesota’s Twin Cities.
In this society, Adan is on his own, unfocused and confused. Similar to many refugees, he tries to assimilate, although he’s not sure what that really means, as well as to stay in touch with his own culture and religion. Then, while on a job delivering food, he hits a stray dog, played with charming realism by Ayla, a Terrier mix.
The dog is uninjured, but then Adan, with no resources of his own, is burdened not only by a creature who needs to be cared for but also, one his religion considers unclean. Adan feels helpless in this situation, ill-equipped to know what’s best for himself or for the dog. Slowly, we see Adan growing into a kinder, more focused person, a change inspired, perhaps, by the incipient bond he forges with the dog and his efforts to do the right thing by her.
This film provides the viewer with insight into a social milieu with which most of us are entirely unfamiliar, that of refugees and their struggle to survive in American communities. Also, in a revelatory scene, into the Native American community; each group finds it difficult to understand the other’s “outsider” status. The film’s ending is influenced by a lesson an imam shares with Adan: A man was wandering in the desert and finally found water, but near the well, there was a thirsty dog. The man filled his shoe to give water to the dog before drinking some himself, and God granted the man heaven.
We spoke with the film’s writer/ director, Musa Syeed, and Ayla’s handler/ owner, Karen Radford, to find out more about what informs their work.
Bark: What inspired this film?
Musa Syeed: My wife found a stray dog shortly after we got married. We are both Muslim, and we were raised to believe that dogs are dirty—you can’t touch them and that kind of thing. Over the weeks we had the dog, I unexpectedly developed a relationship with her. She was a black Lab/ German Shepherd mix, and was such a happy puppy after my wife nursed her back to health. But we were moving to another state, so we decided to take her to the shelter. I had a connection with her, even though I had to give her up. I had this regret, and I started to look at this attitude toward dogs. It isn’t just a religious thing; there are lots of layers to it, and I wanted to make a film about that.
Bark: How did you come to incorporate the dog into the film, and as such an important character?
Musa: I wanted to write a story about a Muslim kid and a dog, like those typical classic American stories. We all grew up reading White Fang and those kinds of books, and I wanted to tell that story from a new perspective, reflecting the new America, in a way. I had that idea in the back of my mind. I also wanted to tell a story about the Minneapolis Somali community and the thematic connection between this community of refugees that’s trying to make a home for itself and a dog who also needs a home. For me, the interesting thing is how unlikely pairings such as these happen and how they find a way to connect, and to love each other in a way, despite the barriers between them. In this case, the question was, how can you love something you can’t touch? That was something I thought was an interesting challenge to show, and it is something that reflects this moment in America. There is a lot of division, and how we bridge it is what’s important to me.
Bark: How did you connect with Karen and her dog Ayla?
Musa: A local [Minneapolis] animal trainer, Debi Pool of Animal Talent Pool, has a catalog of 60 or 70 dogs, and she showed us pictures and some videos. I thought that when we did close-ups, people needed to see the dog’s eyes for that personal connection. Ayla has nice eyes, and her look was really great, her scruffy look; plus, she was the right size to fit into the bag!
Bark: Tell us more about Ayla.
Karen Radford: We adopted Ayla through Secondhand Hounds  [Eden Prairie] about five years ago. She was found wandering in a ditch. We don’t know her exact mix, but we speculate Jack Russell and West Highland Terrier. True to her Terrier type, she’s excellent at hunting up vermin, and she still loves wandering in ditches. One of my hobbies is to train dogs for sports like agility and flyball. So although this is Ayla’s acting debut, she was very amenable to training.
Bark: Musa, could you tell us about directors or movies that have influenced your filmmaking?
Musa: There are neo-realism films that focus on a dog, especially Vittorio De Sica’s Umberto D., about an older man and a dog, although in that story, he wanted to get rid of the dog so he could commit suicide. And then there was a 2008 American film, Wendy & Lucy, about a woman who has to give up a dog in order to save herself.
I was inspired by those films, but I think that oftentimes, it’s easy to be sentimental with dogs and to use them to manipulate audiences, to tug at their hearts. I deliberately didn’t push that too hard. In some films, the dog dies or goes through some brutality, and I also didn’t want this film to be about that. I know people will see that this film is about a refugee and a dog and think that something really devastating will happen, but it doesn’t go there. I wanted to tell a story that was more lighthearted and healing for the people watching it.
Bark: Even though we know little of the main characters’ backstories, they feel multidimensional. Was much of the filming off script, or improvised?
Musa: There was some of that. When I wrote the screenplay, there were certain things I thought were simple, things a dog would just do, like barking; I didn’t realize that it’s a skill that has to be trained. So a lot was understanding what we had to prepare Ayla for and, importantly, what she was up for doing. There was a scene where she was supposed to jump and run around and she didn’t feel like it at that moment, so we had to find a way to work around her. She can’t take direction from me. It was more about respecting where she was, and trying to shape scenes to where she wanted to be.
Bark: Karen, how did you go about training Ayla for more scripted scenes —for example, when she needed to jump into the bag?
Karen: We didn’t have much time between when we were selected and when we shot the film, so we worked on the basics. For the bag-jumping, she had breakfast in her bag every morning. I have another dog, and they would have a competition to see who got to be in the bag. We made that bag really rewarding. We practiced throwing a shirt over her, having different people pick her up, having her ride with someone in a wheelchair. The challenge was that we didn’t know what would happen from day to day, or where the scenes would be filmed, so we didn’t have a chance to visit beforehand. As Musa said, we just had to work with the challenge that dogs don’t generalize. Even if I had her do a behavior at home, that didn’t mean she would do it the same way in an apartment or in a park.
Bark: There’s a scene where Adan bathes Ayla in a bucket. Did you have to train specifically for that?
Karen: One of the challenges of that scene was that she wasn’t allowed to shake [the water coming off her is considered “unclean”]. I can’t take credit for actually teaching Ayla not to shake when wet. However, I taught her a rock solid “watch me,” which we used when she had to stand unattended in the bucket, and I taught Barkhad how to handle her when he was bathing her so she wouldn’t shake all over him. After the scene was done and Barkhad was out of range, Ayla was allowed to shake to her heart’s content.
Musa: Karen brought that bucket to the set. I have to commend her for being more than just the owner/ trainer. She helped with props and other things. It made the movie better —having someone on-set like that to collaborate was really great.
Bark: Tell us about the cultural divide over the concept of pet-keeping.
Musa: There are differences in opinion within Islamic law about the impurity of the dog, and that can often be exaggerated. It comes less from the religion itself than from cultural practices and not being exposed to dogs. Also, when immigrant families have to feed themselves, pet-keeping seems like a luxury. Besides religion, there’s a racial/cultural component. And then at the end, people have to realize that keeping the dog is harder for him than it is for other people, not just because of religion but also because of social and economic factors. So I hope that people see that there are layers to that choice, and appreciate it.
Photography by Yoni Brook