It is not often that we have the pleasure of receiving an African story that does not make its focus the most ugly precarity the continent has to offer. So much nonfiction about Africa, film or otherwise, portrays lives in immediate need of saving, usually by external forces. But to suggest that “Clebs,” the latest work by Swiss-Moroccan director Halima Ouardiri, merely reverse this dynamic—showing us instead lives already being saved from within—would be an injustice to a film short that is as beautiful and broad as it is deceptively simple.
From its very first shot, “Clebs,” which translates as Mutts, dispels any attempt at straightforward categorization. The location goes unmentioned; no context is provided. But as one after another dog enters, and eventually fills, the frame, our attention is taken hostage. The coat of a single, panting dog envelops the title screen with the spectral richness of its texture and color. The director’s appreciation for the beauty of these animals is as vividly apparent as it is compelling. Yet, the film is far from being an animal rights documentary—it is as much a mixed breed as the animals acting as its subject.
Of these 750-some strays, not one is of an identifiable breed. Reminiscent of mutts the world over, they seem to take their color from the same palette as their surroundings: the chalky reddish brown of crumbling mudbrick, the hazel of shadows cast by the ascending and setting sun, the bleached ochre of a dusty, grassless courtyard.
Taken from static camera angles, a series of long shots captures the movement of the dogs within the walls of their Moroccan sanctuary, drawing us further in by accentuating the quotidian. The dogs, well cared-for and seemingly contented, lounge in the shade and nap in the sun; they play, they fight, they piss, have sex, shake away flies, scratch at fleas, and bare teeth. Innocence yields to hierarchy, to order imposed with violence.
Slowly, as Ouardiri’s patience as a director transmutes into the viewer’s curiosity, the acute awareness of what we are seeing transforms into our search for its meaning. Ouardiri does not give us one—at least not readily.
Any viewer will notice that which throughout “Clebs” is almost perfectly, and intentionally, absent: human life. Though we catch brief glimpses of passing caretakers, it is not until near the film’s end that we first hear a human voice. Streaming in from an out of view radio, the specter of a French news broadcast recites the latest UNHCR migration statistics: “this figure of 70.8 million, which can be broken down to 25.9 million refugees, and 41.4 million people displaced within the borders of their own country and 3.5 million asylum seekers.”
Just before the voice is heard, we are finally shown the sanctuary’s picturesque surroundings; a dog twice stretches its paws up the height of a wall as if to scale it and escape, and yet another gazes longingly out of a metal grate acting as a window. The preceding images, now supplemented by the voice of Man, suddenly take on profound new meaning. The dogs are no longer simply animals but symbols of our own, human condition.
Absent the distraction of our own form, the film’s intimate focus on the dog allows its subtle allegory to play itself out in full. “We behave just like dogs,” Ouardiri said, and indeed we can recognize in their behavior a great deal familiar to our own. Their leisure is our leisure; their stampeding and fighting for food, our own insatiable consumption.
Contained as these animals are within the confines of their compound, “Clebs” could not be more timely in its symbolism. Perhaps they are the millions fleeing Africa for the promise of safety and comfort in Europe, or perhaps they are like all of us—just trying to survive and longing for something better. How could we not, in so observing our proverbial best friend, find a truth about ourselves?