Documentarian Elizabeth Lo opens her bittersweet, multilayered feature debut with this skewer of a quote from the ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes: “Human beings live artificially and hypocritically and would do well to study the dog.” So here is a study.
Lo — who not only directed Stray but also produced, shot, and edited it — joins the society of street dogs of Istanbul, moving among them mostly at their eye level. From this startlingly immersive perspective, we meet handsome Zeytin, with her soulful eyes and stolid nobility, and playful puppy Kartal, and a few others. There is no narration: this is a vérité portrait of the dogs’ friendships and rivalries and their interactions with humans. Some people are kind, but most are indifferent, and these dogs, for whom humans are neither masters nor owners, seem to consider us their equals. Even if we do not always meet them on their level.
That, too, is an unexpected doggy outlook: we are used to imagining that dogs see us as gods, and our movies typically reflect that. But the situation in Istanbul is an unusual one: it is illegal in Turkey to capture or euthanize homeless animals, and the city teems with them. (Do the Istanbul street cats of 2017’s documentary Kedi make an appearance? They do!)
The subtext of Stray is one of, well, howling moral questions. Is it a kindness that these dogs have been left to live their lives by their own wits and luck, or is it a cruelty, when dogs only exist at all because we humans shaped them to be our companions? (Lo’s juxtaposition of the dogs with a group of refugee teenagers also living on the streets is powerfully poignant, and very, very pointed.)
Zeytin and her friends aren’t feral: they are well socialized to humans and very much a part of city culture, in every way. They are creatures of intelligence, dignity, and feeling, and inescapably a part of us, no matter what distance we choose to keep them at.
first viewed during the mostly virtual 64th BFI London Film Festival, in pandemic year 2020