Told through a series of metropolitan vignettes, documentary filmmaker Elizabeth Lo’s Stray deftly weaves together a sprawling narrative of human and canine vagabond life on Istanbul’s city streets. While the ostensible focus of the film is on three particular stray dogs—the graceful Zeytin, affable Nazar and unbearably adorable pup Kartal—Lo’s camera is equally invested in portraying the city’s relationship to its refugee population, questioning exactly which street-dwelling denizens Turkish citizens express more compassion towards.
From this synopsis alone, viewers might already be drawing comparisons to the other filmic exploration of Turkish sentiments toward transient animals: Stray’s undeniable spiritual predecessor, Kedi (2016), documents the same city’s cohabitation with its rampant street cat population. Yet Lo’s film opts away entirely from Kedi’s relatively traditional docu-narrative style, allowing shots of canine facial expressions and fleeting interactions with humans to communicate ideas about migration and mutual aid as opposed to platforming straightforward anecdotes of human encounters with strays. The most profound musings on man’s relationship with mutt come from centuries-old quotes from Anatolian philosophers interspersed throughout the documentary via delicate title cards. “Dogs and philosophers do the greatest good and get the fewest rewards,” wrote Diogenes in 368 B.C. An astute statement, sure—but it’s clear that those who go largely unappreciated can always find solace in their kinship with canines.
Though an enduring fondness for dogs is deeply rooted in the region, the film provides key context as to why Turks have such a storied camaraderie with destitute animals. Back in 1909, Turkish authorities began cracking down on the stray dog population, a decision which led to the century-long practice of extermination en masse. This inhumane culling method enraged the population to such a fervent degree that Turkey is now distinguishable as one of the only countries in the world where it is illegal to kill or capture stray dogs.
However, Stray is careful to not oversimplify the widely-accepted reverence for man’s best friend. “Who allows you to shit wherever you want? Leave, or you’re going to get rounded up,” warns an obvious tourist who grows wary of Zeytin’s close distance, who in return appears to be smiling widely, almost as if to say: “They’ll tell you to leave before they even think about shooing me.”
Of course, legislation that is a sweeping victory for dog-kind can’t help but feel like a slap in the face to the country’s significant immigrant population, the influx of which has been classified as nothing short of a “crisis.” This has had an undeniable focus on those displaced by the Syrian Civil War, who at 3.6 million make up the highest fraction of “registered” refugees in Turkey.
“How many times have I kicked you out?”
A maintenance man of a crumbling abandoned building scolds a group of homeless Syrian youth seeking shelter in the condemned space as they huff glue and enjoy Zeytin and Nazar’s company in the dwindling afternoon hours. “If anything is stolen from here, and if I call the police, what are you going to do? Nothing. To prison. Bye-bye,” the hardass continues. “Even if you didn’t do it, you will be blamed for it.”
Yet, Stray isn’t interested in painting its subjects—even its hardasses—with broad strokes. Humans and hounds aren’t portrayed in either stark positive or negative light, allowing for more nuanced shades of levity and humor to counterbalance the precariousness of street life. There is plenty of room for mischief, conflict and sensitivity (as well as several shots of dogs shitting) among those portrayed in the film, a decision with a vested interest in exploring emotion solely through vérité—a method that staunchly rejects superficial heart-tugging techniques and makes all emotional output from the film register as genuine.
An argument could be made for the film inadvertently dehumanizing its Syrian subjects through examining their struggles with the same lens as animals who literally have more legal protections than they do. Yet Lo’s film purposefully transcends hard-line stances that plainly condemn ideological hypocrisies, instead opting for a sweeping visual and philosophical framework to enlighten audiences in a creatively beautiful way.
Director: Elizabeth Lo
Release Date: March 5, 2021 (Magnolia Pictures)
Natalia Keogan is a Queens-based writer who covers film, music and culture, with particular interest in the horror genre and depictions of sexuality and gender. You can read her work in Narratively, Filmmaker Magazine and Paste, and find her on Twitter.