Sometimes, people fight wars against their own countrymen. Khalid Shams’ The Colonel’s Stray Dogs depicts an unconventional war between Mu’Ammar Gaddafi and Shams’ father Ashur. He’s an Islamist back when Islamism meant different things. Ashur sees Islam as a religion where its practitioners can speak freely, which opposes Gaddafi’s extreme beliefs. Shams’ film then, captures how his father and great minds like Ashur’s tried to topple Gaddafi. The first approach, of course, are conferences that enlighten viewers like us about the Arab world during the 80s. Imagine holding a freedom conference in Iraq during Saddam Hussein’s reign.
The Colonel’s Stray Dogs doesn’t always borrow shots from archive footage and photos. At other times, it is a history lesson between a parent and an adult son. That has always been the way people learn history. And these lessons are 51% reliable only because sons and daughters have ideas of their own, casting doubt and questioning their parents’ bias. There are interesting teachable moments which add levity to the film, even if the conversations are about whether Ashur is a freedom fighter or a terrorist. There’s honesty during Shams’ scenes with Ashur too, the latter revealing history’s personal sides.
It was interesting to see this side of Africa, but Shams sometimes adds Vangelis-like tracks whenever he plays archive footage, a choice that feels too on the nose. Viewers can also experience moments that lack subtlety when the footage is of Gaddafi’s goons executing the counter-revolutionary stray dogs. Thankfully, The Colonel’s Stray Dogs never depicts Gaddafi in the glamorous way that early 80s media depicts him. But this film’s third act is basically just clips of Ashur reacting to Gaddafi as the latter publicly embarrasses himself. As I write this, history is never boring and this film understand this well.