A boy-and-his-dog story, with a cultural twist

Barkhad Abdirahman in "A stray"
Barkhad Abdirahman stars in Musa Syeed's drama "A Stray" set in and around the Cedar Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis.
Image courtesy Film Society of Minneapolis and St. Paul

Even as filming continues in the Twin Cities for the controversial HBO series "Mogadishu, Minnesota," a much smaller film about the Cedar Riverside neighborhood opens in Minneapolis this weekend.

"A Stray" is about a Somali refugee whose life changes, not always for the better, when he befriends a dog.

"A Stray" is the story of Adan. He's a good kid who tries to follow the rules. But he's alienated his family by pawning his mother's jewelry, and he's irritated his friends, who are tired of his mooching.

A man he meets at the mosque gives him a job at a local restaurant. Then things take a turn for the worse when he sets off in his boss's car to deliver some food.

He's driving and talking on his phone when he hears a bump and slams on the brakes. The food goes flying.

He climbs out and looks around.

"You just hit something," says a young woman standing nearby with her bike.

Barkhad Abdirahman
In a twist on the classic "man and his dog" trope, Adan befriends a stray dog, despite the fact that as a Muslim he believes dogs are "haram" or forbidden under Islamic law. Writer/director Syeed hopes the film gives a glimpse into everyday life within the Somali community and the challenges faced by refugees.
Image courtesy Film Society of Minneapolis and St. Paul

He looks under the car, and sees a small white mutt.

"Pick him up," the woman says. "You can't just leave him there."

Adan takes the dog to the vet and learns it's not hurt. But the vet says he can't leave the dog there; Adan needs to take it away. This is a problem, and one that writer-director Musa Syeed knew would be good to explore.

"Because the man-and-dog story is such a sort of archetypal American/Western story," he said. "And I thought that, given Muslim sensitivities towards dogs, it could be an interesting take on that story."

Under Muslim law, dogs are considered haram, or forbidden. They're seen as dirty.

"What was interesting to me about a Muslim kid and a dog was that these are two entities that seemingly are not able to reconcile, or that are so different," Syeed said. "And I think that's the way that maybe a lot of people see, you know, Muslims in America ... there is some inherent tension or something like that."

In the film, Adan feels sorry and responsible for the dog, even though it makes him flinch. But he's lonely, and talks to the animal, complaining about his lot in life. At one point, a non-Muslim friend offers to buy the dog some food, and presents Adan with a bag of dried pig's ears. Adan is nonplussed, and then turns to the dog.

"Pig ears? Are you allowed to eat this? Are you Muslim?"

The dog stares back enigmatically in reply.

Adan is played by actor Barkhad Abdirahman, no stranger to film work. He was one of the Twin Cities performers chosen to portray Somali pirates in the Tom Hanks film "Captain Phillips." That film shot his friend Barkhad Abdi to fame. Abdirahman still lives in Cedar Riverside. Like many Somali-Americans, he came to the United States through Kenya. Minneapolis has been his home for a decade.

Musa Syeed, who lives in New York, came to Minneapolis to scout the city and to spend time with Abdirahman long before he ever rolled a camera. Syeed wrote much of the dialog based on how the actor spoke and what he'd seen in his life.

"He brought a lot of his personal experience to the role, as a young man experiencing that transition of moving to America and being in a new place," Syeed said. "He had some of the same struggles as the character Adan in the film."

Syeed says he also spent time learning about the community, getting to know people in Cedar Riverside. He also got to know Minneapolis.

"We really wanted the city to be a character, in a way," he said.

The result is a deft portrait of Minneapolis, with its river, parks and big buildings, weaving in the restaurants, mosques and homes of the Somali community. Syeed takes a simple, gentle story, places it in a specific community in a particular city, and creates something much larger about the times in which we live.

Syeed will introduce several screenings of the movie Saturday at the Film Society of Minneapolis and St Paul.

"Film has that immersive quality, and so I wanted to bring audiences into these worlds that maybe they don't feel comfortable entering," he said. "You know, we don't often get to experience that everyday quality of Muslim life in America."

He hopes that through this story of a man and his forbidden dog there is room for compassion, understanding and a connection.

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.