Elizabeth Lo’s delightful documentary Stray doesn’t preach, but gently nudges us to contemplate what we’re seeing. Beyond a handful of intertitles – mainly quotes from philosophers like Diogenes who were born in what is now Turkey – there is no overt commentary. The opening intertitle informs us that in modern-day Turkey it’s illegal to capture or euthanize stray dogs. The remainder of Lo’s brisk film shows us the happy outcome of this humane legislation on the streets of Istanbul.
Based on Lo’s footage, the vast majority of its human residents are pleased to share their city with its canine perambulators. The pups get plenty of head pats and the occasional treat. Cars swing out of the path of dogs reclining partway into intersections; women’s rights demonstrators joke about the pair of dogs humping in the middle of their parade path. Only a couple of grumbling tourists and food cart vendors drizzle on the doggie love fest.
If this sounds familiar, you might be remembering 2016’s equally enjoyable documentary, Kedi. Instead of a dog’s-eye perspective on Istanbul, that film followed the daily rounds of several stray cats and the humans who accommodate them. In keeping with its less refined, more sociable protagonists, the camerawork in Stray is bumpier, the humans’ reactions to the dogs and their tracking camera more evident. The music from composer Ali Helnwein aptly shifts in tone to accompany the mostly celebratory, infrequently earnest tenor of the film.
The star of Stray is a handsome bitch named Zeytin. A mid-sized tan dog with a dignified profile, black-tipped ears, and a black muzzle, she’s a bit arthritic in her hind legs and has a few gray hairs. But age doesn’t slow down her meanderings, as she’s not too old to chase a cat or crouch into a play stance before frolicking with another dog.
Lo’s dog-level camera gives us a mini-travelogue, as we explore cobblestoned streets and hear the muezzin’s call to prayer. We sometimes glimpse the Hagia Sophia in the distance, and Zeytin periodically traverses a bridge across the Bosphorus.
However, this isn’t the Rick Steves version of Turkey. As we get to know Zeytin’s routine, his canine friends and nemeses, we see that he likes to hang out at a half-wrecked construction site. Here, we meet a group of glue-sniffing adolescent boys, refugees from Aleppo and squatters on the site. Without the requisite documentation, they’re doomed to a life on the fringes, homeless and unemployed. They welcome Zeytin and a couple of his pals (including Kartal, an adorable black and white puppy), for the warmth they offer at night and their judgment-free companionship.
From the interview with Lo that’s included with the price of a virtual movie ticket, her meeting with the Syrian boys was entirely serendipitous. Nonetheless, it offers a somber through-theme for Stray, showing a Turkey more hospitable to dogs than its refugee population.
In that same interview, Lo states that her primary goal was to portray the dignity and holiness of our canine friends, as a gentle corrective to an anthropocentric worldview. She succeeded beautifully. What you see is what you get with a dog: they have no hidden agendas, they ask little and love much, and the way we treat them reveals our own integrity.
(Stray is now streaming through arthouse cinema websites like this one.)
(Image credit for star rating: Yasir72.multan CC BY-SA 3.0 )