Elizabeth Lo's inspired "dogumentary" follows a group of semi-feral canines as they roam the city in search of human connection
Zeytin was born to be on camera. With her soulful eyes and gleaming, tan-colored coat, she's the kind of dog people stop to observe on the street, complementing her healthy look. In another world, she might be the dog of countless commercials or even movies, with a natural ability to position herself perfectly within a frame. She's also a stray – just one of more than 10,000 dogs who live nomadic lives on the streets on Istanbul, a result of a law that prevents the city's dogs from being captured or killed.
Stray, Elizabeth Lo's unconventional and poetic documentary (or is that “dogumentary”?), at first sounds like a gimmick: a vérité piece, shot at just below waist level as to emulate a dog's-eye view. But as Lo's low-slung camera takes to the Turkish streets, allowing us to observe these animals as though part of the pack ourselves, we quickly realise how her freewheeling approach allows for an equally empathetic portrait of both man and beast. Think of these dogs as your local tour guides, who know the city like the back of their paws. And how good it is, at a time of global lockdown, to get out and about.
Zeytin is the undoubtably the star, beautiful and gentle, with an easy-going temperament that endears her to anyone she meets – and one that puts the collared mutts we encounter to shame. But she's in good company. There's also Nazir, another female stray, who frequently rides shotgun, and also an adorable puppy, Kartal, whose azure blue eyes have managed to melt the stoic heart of a local building site manager, the unofficial and self-appointed human guardian of this pack.
Making their way through Istanbul's vibrant streets, picking at bones, passing landmarks, and dodging cars, we overhear snippets of conversation: an argument between a couple; the voices of those attending a women's protest rally. All the time, the dog's lives continually intersect with a group of young Syrian refugees living out of crumbled buildings and on building sites. As they find kindred spirits in Zeytin and the gang, we notice how these humans are treated with less respect than the dogs. The film's title, we realise, can be read on two levels.
But there's no deeply political angle here: we're mere observers to these dog day afternoons, captured over a period of two years and edited down to just 74 minutes. Several of the sequences might conjure memories of Hungarian filmmaker Kornél Mundruczó's White God, with its packs spilling out into the streets as though trying to reclaim the city. But these mutts don't want the world; just to make it through the night. Stray is slight, but warm and life-affirming – what a treat it is to be embedded with these brilliant underdogs.
Stray is now available to rent or buy on various digital platforms.Where to watch