There are a lot of adorable dogs in Stray. But there are also several alarming close-ups of simmering turds and very intimate butt-sniffing, so it's swings and roundabouts really. This is a thoughtful documentary from LA-based filmmaker Elizabeth Lo, exploring the current state of Turkey through the eyes of the thousands of stray canines who occupy its streets. “Human beings live artificially and hypocritically and would do well to study the dog,” reads the Diogenes quote that opens the film and serves as one of its intriguing theses.
Lo's central conceit is a very smart one. The movie goes over common ground that's pretty universal to most of Europe right now, dealing with the refugee crisis and the slow march towards gender equality, but it finds a new eye by shifting the perspective to three feet above the tarmac of the bustling streets. Multiple dogs get the chance to enter the spotlight, but there's no doubt that the beautiful, tan-coloured Zeytin is the star – introduced sitting watchfully at the side of a busy road.
Watching is the key aspect of Stray, with dogs keenly observing humanity, even as people often ignore them. The opening credits explain that Istanbul tried to cull its stray dog population in the early 20th century, only for protests to replace that with legislation protecting the creatures and leading to a sort of uneasy peace. Stray dogs in Istanbul are treated with the same lack of novelty as pigeons in central London. As a result, they're able to look up at the truth of the people – most notably a group of teenage refugees from Syria, selling tissue packets on the street and living in a shell of a building on a construction site.
The dogs of Stray gravitate not to the people with the correct immigration papers, or those wearing the sharpest suits. They spend their time following those who are kind to them, providing them with affection and, crucially, scraps of food they don't have to fish out of the garbage bags lining the streets. There's an element of kindred spirit in the way Zeytin bonds with the group of refugees, who are also simply trying to find a way to exist in a society that is either openly hostile to them or simply uncaring and ignorant of their existence.
Lo sees dogs as a sort of check and balance on human beings, watching either closely or from afar as an omnipresent reminder of the inherent compassion that even the worst people possess. More than once, Lo's camera finds a pooch resting in the middle of a busy traffic junction, parting the traffic like the Red Sea as even the most hurried of travellers swerve to avoid them. The closing credits feature Zeytin howling along with music played on the streets – an animal so in tune with the noises of the city that she's effectively a part of the landscape.
Filmed over a lengthy period between 2017 and 2019, Stray uses an animal perspective to tell a deeply human story. It doesn't push heavily on the politics inherent within its themes, reflecting the fact that dogs have no interest in the ballot box. Rather, this is a movie that revels in simplicity and the power of survival instinct. Dog lovers may wince at the rather visceral scenes of canine clashes, with paws flailing and teeth bared, but these moments of aggression paint another clear picture. Survival is a fight, whether you walk on four legs or two.
Dir: Elizabeth Lo
Scr: Elizabeth Lo
Prd: Elizabeth Lo, Shane Boris
DOP: Elizabeth Lo
Music: Ali Helnwein
Run time: 72 minutes
Stray is is screening as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2020.