The City Filled With Homeless Dogs Fighting to Survive
Filmmaker Elizabeth Lo’s new documentary “Stray” follows the stray dogs roaming the streets of Istanbul—and the Syrian migrants they cross paths with.
“You are on your own. Nothing happens to men like us because we live from day to day,” states a Chechen immigrant to homeless Syrian kids in Istanbul in Stray. Rootless, nomadic hand-to-mouth existences are at the center of director/producer/editor/cinematographer Elizabeth Lo’s documentary, but humans are merely the peripheral players in this stunning non-fiction inquiry, which truly trains its gaze on some of the myriad canines that roam the city’s streets. A spiritual companion piece to Ceyda Torun’s 2016 Kedi (which concerned the legions of cats inhabiting this same metropolis), Lo’s film reveals the secret life of dogs. In doing so, she draws stark parallels between their world and our own, and our shared desires for sustenance, comfort, and companionship.
Following a 20th century in which authorities attempted to exterminate the animals (leading to mass killings), widespread protests have transformed the city into one of the few places on the planet where it’s illegal to euthanize and hold captive any stray dog—meaning that on virtually every sidewalk, in every alley, and near every dumpster, canines congregate, searching for food, sparring, nuzzling, and trying to survive. Theirs is an unromantic plight, albeit not without its pleasures, and Lo’s camera assumes their perspective throughout, maintaining a low-to-the-ground position while following these pooches to and fro, down bustling sidewalks where people barely give them notice, across streets where cars stop to let them pass, and on beaches where they’re free to run about, playing and rolling around and occasionally cornering and snarling at unknown intruders.
Stray focuses its attention on a trio of dogs—beginning with Zeytin, whose striking tan coloring and big, sorrowful eyes are as expressive as her movements through Istanbul’s various districts are casual. With a sometimes squinty expression on her face, and a right ear that droops slightly lower than her left, Zeytin is a native inhabitant of this urban landscape, equally at ease on its well-paved sidewalks, in its parks beside busy thoroughfares, and on scraggly stretches of hilly land decorated with giant rock outcroppings and ruins of buildings whose columns still stand. Zeytin has a confidence that renders her a perfect guide for this environment, as well as makes her popular with locals, many of whom know her by name. That includes a collection of young Syrian migrants who live on the street and, we learn courtesy of random snippets of conversation, are known to sniff glue and are under constant threat of being arrested by the authorities.
Zeytin is soon paired in Stray with friendly Nazar and black-and-white pup Kartal, the latter of whom comes under the Syrian kids’ care after they beg a local man for one of his many strays, and he acquiesces by telling them that they can return at night and steal one for themselves. The similarities between Istanbul’s dog and refugee populations aren’t hard to discern, and director Lo doesn’t italicize or force such echoes, instead allowing them to materialize from the proceedings at hand. Through the careful selection and juxtaposition of scenes, she analogizes the animals’ and kids’ struggle to subsist, their territorial squabbles with others (be they with other dogs, or tourists and police who’d rather keep the streets free of homeless youth), and their yearning for love—or, at bare minimum, a warm body to cuddle with under a blanket at night.
Lo divides her film with textual quotes about dogs’ nobility (mostly from the Greek philosopher Diogenes, circa 300 B.C.), yet otherwise eschews overt commentary. Even the human voices in Stray are only heard in fragments, and sometimes via distorted audio that’s meant to mimic how Zeytin, Nazar and Kartal might experience them. Those bits and pieces of dialogue are sometimes comical (such as remarks about two dogs screwing during a women’s rights march), sometimes political (as when men argue about whether to vote for the Nationalist Movement Party), and sometimes as ordinary as a garbage truck operator chastising Nazar for not sharing a meaty bone found in the trash with Zeytin. Such commentary is generally background, but it nonetheless remains a key component of Lo’s observational examination of Turkish society’s pressing concerns, fissures, and treatment of those residing on its fringes.
Stray is most evocative when simply trotting beside or behind its canine protagonists, capturing (and subtly mimicking) the sway of their bodies, the rhythm of their gait, the curiosity in their eyes, and the potential viciousness of their circumstances—a fact conveyed by a sterling sequence in which Lo’s camera races after Zeytin down a nighttime street, almost losing sight of her, only to have the euphoria of the moment (amplified by Ali Helnwein’s string score) interrupted by a sudden burst of dog-on-dog violence that’s quelled by the Syrian kids. In that moment, the film recognizes the thin divide between bliss and brutality that defines these dogs’ daily situations, just as the sound design (courtesy of Leviathan and Sweetgrass’ Ernst Karel) duplicates the swirling combination of noises—chirping birds, honking car horns, disembodied chatter—that engulfs them as they meander from dilapidated construction site to storefront stoop to gray dockyard.
Lo’s portrait of these wayward dogs is often melancholy, especially when it comes to Kartal, whose acclimation to these harsh stomping grounds seems, by the look in his eyes, to inspire a significant degree of trepidation. Yet there are also moments of amusing levity, as when Zeytin stumbles upon a cat hiding in a row of park bushes and, suddenly enlivened by this discovery, gives immediate chase. Stray doesn’t shy away from the good or the bad, documenting its four-legged subjects as they jump, hump, run, fight, scrounge, growl, sleep and seek out protection, food, and rest. The more it watches them, the more it taps into the universality of their experience, all without losing sight of the uniqueness of their character and predicament.
With perceptive neo-realist grace, Stray lets its dogs’ actions in the face of abandonment, neglect, and abuse speak volumes about their resilience and benevolence, their fierceness and their compassion. In doing so, the film also says much about the men and women willing to lend a helping hand to the less fortunate—and, also, about those who turn a blind eye to creatures in need.