“Perhaps not a pleasure to experience but is, by the time it finishes, profound and essential”
The first time we get a proper look at Zeytin, it’s up close – her world-weary gaze filling the entire screen, scanning for something or perhaps nothing at all. Her expression as she watches the world spin around her, along with her deeply absorbing eyes, as human as anything you’ll see this year. Working as a poetic companion piece to Ceyda Toran’s cosy, contemplative cat documentary, Kedi, Elizabeth Lo takes similar themes of abandonment and connection in her brief but stirring dog documentary, Stray, which quietly observes the lives of Istanbul’s wandering souls.
An opening title card provides context for Turkey’s ongoing crisis for our canine companions, explaining that after wide protests Istanbul has made it illegal to euthanise stray dogs. Although, in the beautifully resonant glimpse into their urban lives, the solutions don’t appear to be simple, easy or on the horizon anytime soon. A stunning epilogue credit sequence slams this point home and I’ll be thinking about it every time I see a dog.
Filmed over two years, with the footage stitched efficiently together to span three days and nights, with her eye often down low and level with her four-legged subjects, Lo captures the interconnecting lives of three dogs, Zeytin, Nazar, Kartal, and a group of refugee boys who have no choice but to slumber in the ruins with the dogs in a city that has forgotten them. And while the boys offer a poignant bridging of how society treats humans with contempt as much as it does the hopeful dogs that limp in the shadows of a world that never stops moving, it is the trio of strays that steal the show and our hearts.
Zeytin, a precious, made-for-cinema catch is tanned and stunningly present, but she’s stacked with muscle and so a lot of people tread around her with fear. Shown through Zeytin’s silent attachment to the group of boys resigned to taking drugs and sleeping in hazardous construction sites – which have the look and feel of a world destroyed and left behind – it only takes a moment of kindness to relax her rigged body and soften those expressive eyes. In one of the most touching scenes, Zeytin is caressed after a dog fight – this scene itself is a heart-in-mouth explosion of violence and a sobering reminder of the reality of living wild and alone. One of the boys – whether it’s Jamil, Halil, Ali ( it doesn’t really matter, they all share the same disheartened, deserted voice) – takes Zeytin’s injured paw into their hands, limp and weightless; a moment of kindness is all it has taken for this dog to lean truly and completely into her human companion. She, like the boys, lives entirely in the moment: homeless, abandoned, hungry and vulnerable. Zeytin, and it goes for anybody living on the streets, just needs somebody to care.
With their indifferent stares, nonchalant struts through heavy traffic and public displays of indecency, a poop in a park and a sexual romp during… wait for it… a female right’s protest, all three dogs’ glow with a magnetic purity that dominates the screen. These moments are played for laughs, intensified and illuminated by Lo’s decision to film mostly without human interference or interviews. The only sound of our place in all this comes from the everyday noise of life floating in the background; blaring car horns, the boom of mosque speakers and the idle chit-chat of a squabbling couple all make up the soundscape of Lo’s documentary. The sound design has been crafted with real muscular tactility from Ernst Karel who did such extraordinary work on Leviathan (2012). These innocuous bursts of dialogue provide strange and striking commentary on the images on screen. “Only with consent!”’ one of the protesters declares. The line between our world and that of a dog may not so be thick after all, especially when illuminated in the troubling light of inequality, poverty and loneliness.
Stray is passionately crafted and beautifully observed, but it is also thrillingly wild and there is a sense of something elemental at play in the deserted streets, human ignorance and general hot glow of Lo’s fierce, absorbing camerawork. The absence of deliberate human voice lends a real sense of time and place into a rare window of a world that is, perhaps not a pleasure to experience but is, by the time it finishes, profound and essential.
The only other artistic meddling comes from Ali Helnwein’s rapturous score that lends the film urgency and dramatic flourish, usually kicking in during a gleeful charge down the street or towards food, an emotional touch that would otherwise be filled with narrative voiceover. The main thing with a documentary like this is that the dogs capture every ounce of your attention, and Lo makes sure they absolutely do. At the point when Zeytin perches herself on a barren hillside and howls in the echo of the morning prayer amplified across Istanbul, there was a pit in my stomach the size of a crater. Is she crying? Praying with us? I can’t understand her and yet I’m moved beyond anything I can understand myself. It’s a film about a dog’s life, but it’s just as easily about ours too, after all, on this planet, whether we like it or not, we are all in this together. So, if you can give a dog a bone, you may as well just do it.
Director: Elizabeth Lo
Producers: Elizabeth Lo, Shane Boris
Release Date: 2020
Featured image courtesy of Dogwoof