Zeytin, the canine star of Elizabeth’s Lo drifting, ambient documentary Stray is an expressive beast. We first meet her at muzzle level, sniffing the air as if pondering what adventures await her. Zeytin is a streetwise veteran of both Istanbul’s bustling centre and its derelict outskirts, and is more than familiar with who to pester for a morsel of food or a friendly pat. She’s often accompanied by a veritable gang, including scrappy hound Nazar and the cute, timid puppy Kartal.
If it appears that these dogs are not only tolerated, but are treated rather fondly by many of the citizens of Istanbul, there is a reason rather unique to Turkey. It is illegal to euthanise or confine strays in the country. And what characters these furry nomads are. At times, Zeytin seems to have a comedian’s sense of timing. A small dog on a leash is lifted away from her inquisitive sniffs by its owner, who admonishes her pet to; ‘Be careful, she might kill.’ Zeytin gives a swift glance to camera, as if offended by the slur.
Lo’s authorial voice is lacking from any overt voiceover or commentary, but her purpose soon becomes clear as Zeytin and chums navigate the city. With her camera trained at the level of her subjects – and very impressive this is from a technical perspective – we get a unique insight into the sights and sounds of the city, including its upheavals and its more tragic elements. At one stage the dogs blithely saunter into an anti-Erdoğan demonstration, and the musky air of civil disobedience gets a little too much for two of the dogs who decide to get down to it in the middle of the march, drawing a suitably right-on enquiry about consent from one of the protesters.
Far less amusing is the dogs’ mutually supportive relationship with another set of strays and outcasts, a shabby pack of homeless Syrian refugees. The dogs seems to sense some kinship with these fellow itinerants, and this is where the real motive of Lo’s documentary comes to the fore. It is far from subtle as metaphors go, but it is presented in a natural, non-judgemental way that allows the viewer to draw their own conclusions. It is certainly less artificial than similar commentary about the refugee crisis in a film like Luca Guadagnino‘s A Bigger Splash a few years back. How can this society treats its homeless animals better than their human counterparts? Lo’s outraged inquiry is posed in the most gentle way.
As fascinating company as these dogs can be, the film wanders into dramatic stasis, even as its stars rarely remain still. Even as a lean morsel with all the fat removed at 73 minutes its central point is made fairly early on in the proceedings. This is unlikely to deter this nation of inveterate dog lovers, but we could surely have done without the most lingering shots of dog poo on film since Alfonso Cuarón‘s Roma. Stray has an admirable sense of purpose and consistency of method, but its steady, almost neo-realistic rhythms occasionally risk a soporific effect.
In one of the frequent intertitles that punctuate Zeytin’s meandering odyssey, there is a quote from the Socratic philosopher Diogenes: ‘Dogs and philosophers do the greatest good and gets the fewest rewards’. This may rather overstate the case for philosophers, but Elizabeth Lo’s affectionate and gently probing documentary goes some way to making the case for man’s best friend. Oh, and make sure to stay for the credits for a closing number from our leading lady herself.
Screening as part of BFI London Film Festival Wed 7 Oct 2020