Filmed throughout 2017 and 2019 Elizabeth Lo’s first feature Stray is an intimate and thought provoking study of a dog’s view of the streets of Istanbul.
Elizabeth Lo’s unobstructed camera follows our three leads Zeytin, Nazar and Kartal as they roam through the streets of Istanbul. Their freedom is thanks to a law that made it illegal to euthanize or capture a stray dog in Turkey. Our three subjects meet with locals who feed them. March with protesters and hang out with refugees. This world is told all through the curious gaze that a dog has to offer. There is far more here than meets the eye here.
Perfectly starting with the line “Human beings live artificially and hypocritically and would do well to study the dog”. The audience is presented with a film that has a nature documentary vibe. Only set smack bang in the middle of a bustling city. Running at a brisk 72 minutes. You could be forgiven for wanting a lot more time with these dogs, to see more of what they see and experience on a daily occurrence.
An interesting idea that Lo and her team take over the shoot is that for almost the entirety of the film we are at the dog’s eye line. We see what they see and how they see it as they show us their Istanbul. Lo’s ability to keep the camera free and expressive like our trio (especially Zeytin who owns the film) is impressive. The close-ups on her simply stop you in your tracks. You watch her as she watches the world around her and it is a beautiful viewing experience.
Where Stray shines is with the camerawork, getting as close as possible to our subjects, but far enough to not affect their decisions. We see the wear and tear of living on the streets with these animals. Recognising their gait and how it changes over time. The view from behind Zeytin becomes our go-to as she wanders past people and taking moments to sit and rest. It is intimate work to capture these moments. On occasion just as we are settled for a few moments of stationary shots we are thrust up and away down a street or through a park. It is an excellent work from Lo and her team to capture what she does.
When Zeytin is called over by a young group of Syrian boys, you not only see others try to ignore or move around the dogs but also the refugees. Lo showing that it is not only canines that are considered strays in this world. It could be said that the refugees who take up residence in an abandoned site have it worse off. Continually trying to persuade security to let them stay at the site for their own safety instead of being out in the cold streets. When moved on they beg, the security don’t understand that they do not have a home. All the while Zeytin and Nazar are allowed to stay and roam freely with no comments.
This look at socioeconomic values continues throughout the film. Instances of the better off being afraid of the strays in case they bite their small raincoat clad pets. The lower-income workers seem to be the ones who look after our strays. Feeding them and halting arguments over sharing some bones from the trash. An interesting look to the world in which these animals live in and also to how we treat them and others of our species. Turkish residents respect or cherish these animals more than immigrants by how they speak to them.
Automatically comparisons have to be made for the documentary based on felines Kedi, also focused on Istanbul. Stray becomes the perfect companion piece to Kedi. With that said Lo has wisely decided not to be as controlled as Kedi. Stray is a lot freer, we don’t focus on the people who look after or check on these animals. We are given but the quickest of glimpses as they pet and break up fights between animals. Staying with the Syrian boys long enough to realise their plight and connection to these animals. They are the same, roaming through the city, looking for food and a comfortable place to sleep. With these goals and not always being achieved.
However, it can be said that we perhaps get one too many quotes of philosophers. As if we need them to remind us of the point of what we are seeing. They are not as necessary as Lo would think and a touch of believing in the audience to tie what we are seeing together would have been required. That said, it is a minor grumble and not one that overly detracts from the film.
Due to what is studied here, Stray is much more than a look into the lives of a few dogs in Istanbul. It is a haunting look at ourselves and as the numerous quotes that fill the screen say have humans abandoned themselves to be something they are not?
Have we forgotten the important aspects of life? For the most part, we see people weave around focused on their journey in this bustling modern world and few enjoying the moments around them. A guard opening a gate accidentally alarms a dog and he can only smile and give her a quick pet to reassure her. It is soft and warming to see that not all is lost for mankind in these moments.
There is a lot to pick at in Stray, and it is at its best when it highlights the kindness in humans. Both to our three subjects and the boys who occasionally accompany them.
Also, for those wondering, according to Lo. There are still teams of people going out to feed the strays during COVID.
To view more of our reviews as we cover the London Film Festival 2020, please have a gander below!
The Painter and the Thief ★★★★ – LFF 2020