“Human beings love artificially and hypocritically, and would do well to study the dog.”– Diogenes 360 B.C.
Through quotes like these, Elizabeth Lo projects a nobility and respect onto the footage she’s captured. The star of Stray is Zeytin, a dog wandering the streets of Turkey’s largest city. He has a noble aspect, surveying his domain with a wisdom that we try to comprehend throughout the film. As he weaves through crowds and manoeuvres the busy roads at a leisurely pace he chases cats, fixates on a bone and snoozes on doorsteps in a unique way to discover a new place. An uneasy violin score accompanies the chaotic shifts in camera, making the rapidly shifting perspective more immersive.
In following him through the streets, the viewers learn far more about the real inhabitants of Istanbul, beyond glossy travel documentaries. In one shot, the famous blue mosque is merely a backdrop, the foreground focused on the crumbling rubble of a construction site. Snippets of random conversations are more intimate than you’d think, especially as couples discuss their relationships with bracing honesty in outdoor cafés. It’s a political minefield that goes over the head of our canine guide, the contrast even more startling when overheard by a tiny puppy, with few cares in the world.
Zeytin’s closest human companions are homeless Syrian refugees, living day by day on scraps just like him. Their ongoing battle with the site managers of the building site is captured from Zeytin’s hazy, shaky camera perspective, cleverly mirroring the territorial nature of the dogs he snarls at and fights with. Throughout, the base level of commonality between man and dog is reinforced, and we become invested in their survival together.
Stray would make for a fascinating double bill with Ceyda Torun’s Kedi, which followed street cats in Istanbul. Unlike the distinct characters of that film for Zeytin, Nazar and Kartal, life in the film is far more chaotic, making them hard to recognise at times in the mad rush. While cats very much lead and tell their own stories in Kedi, the stories of these dogs are so intertwined with the humans they interact with, however briefly. There is also a religious element alluded to, dogs in Islam are considered unclean, and as Lo mentions, in the past, there have been several failed efforts to rid the city of its stray dog population. Thus, there is a political rebellion in their very existence, that mirrors the struggles of the displaced so common in the world today.
Stray is a soulful and spirited debut from Elizabeth Lo. Though the story is short for a feature film and sometimes incoherent, it’s easy to be swept away by the sounds of the city and absorb the reality these creatures see. It is more rough around the edges and honest than its feline counterpart Kedi, following man’s best friend into the squalor and chaos man has created.
Stray screened as part of the virtual edition of the BFI London Film Festival 2020
by Fatima Sheriff
Fatima (she/her) is a biomedical sciences graduate and aspiring science communicator. Literary adaptations with beautiful soundtracks call to her, but she enjoys anything with an original concept, witty writing, diverse casting or even the briefest appearance of Dan Stevens. Her favourite films do fluctuate but her love for Paddington 2 is perennial. She can be found on Letterboxd @sherifff and on Twitter here.