“Human beings live artificially and hypocritically and would do well to study the dog.” – Diogenes of Sinope, 360 BC
The quote above, one of many from Sinope employed throughout the film, opens Stray, a work by Hong Kong filmmaker Elizabeth Lo, and a documentary looking at stray dogs living on the streets of Istanbul.
Opening with scenes of three dogs, Zeytin, Nazar and Kartal, on a beach in autumn, we follow them as they search for food and shelter. We are told that, since 1909, Turkish authorities have slaughtered stray animals routinely, meaning there was around a century of unchecked mass killing of the community of homeless dogs. Modern widespread protests led to a reversal, with Turkey now one of the few countries in the world where it is illegal to euthanise or hold captive any stray. Of course, this has led to a sizable rise in the population of these dogs.
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We pick up with Zeytin, as she goes about her life. A dog that appears to be mixed breed, with perhaps some Great Dane in her. Essentially, we follow a few days in her life, as she wanders the city, playing with other dogs – including Nazar – that she encounters, meeting humans – including city sanitation staff – that know her by name and feed her scraps. Lo forgoes narration, and allows the sounds of the city to speak for themselves, as we get dialogue from those encountering Zeytin. Reaction to her ranges from affection, through indifference, to fear, as those with their own animals fear a stray may harm their pets.
We then meet Nazar properly, an older, slightly smaller dog, as he takes affection from a couple of young boys. This is the first hint that the film is keen to show a portrait of the city through the eyes of these dogs; as we see that Nazar is amongst several humans who appear to be homeless, sat on old reclaimed furniture in a disused building marked for demolition in the near future. It turns out these are refugees, discussing the steps needed to get a work permit.
Two-three hours in a government building, being interviewed, where you need to know family history – clearly many of them do not. Some know the details but system or human error has prevented progress. The gratitude and lack of bitterness for their lot is illuminating. They describe the building in positive terms, and as home, despite being in a running battle with the owner of the land, who threatens them with law enforcement, and forces them to leave. As our focus stays with the dogs – most often Zeytin, this is merely an episode in their day-to-day existence.
Kartal is a young black and white puppy. At the risk of ascribing human characteristics, his youth gives him a less jaded air. The first time we see Nazar, he is lazily taking fuss, when we first encounter Kartal, he is enthusiastically and playfully begging for food, which he devours with great enthusiasm. Counterposed to this is news on the radio of President Erdogan and some of the issues facing the country. Kartal is greeted warmly due chiefly to his being a puppy.
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This is the pattern for the whole work. Unnarrated footage that gets very close to the dogs as they encounter slices of life in the city. Unhappy marriages, and all classes of society from the destitute to comfortable small business owners. Camera work is impressive in basing itself close to the animals, and down at their vantage point. These are good natured animals comfortable in human company, which allows for the filmmaker to capture the stories around them. Different times of day bring differing vibes to the town, and underscore the essential innocence of the animals, as they see no environment as any more or less threatening than any others. They are clearly living the best lives they can in the circumstances, as they are all clean and look well fed and healthy.
The issue with this type of documentary – the fly on the wall, slice of life – is that they always feel random and unfocused in their aims. Stray is no exception. Attractively shot, and a nice opportunity to spend some time in the company of some good-natured, attractive dogs, it is an enjoyable enough watch. One must ask, however, what we really learn, given that all major metropolitan centres have their social issues, all countries have those in poverty, all have winners and losers, and all lives have their challenges. Istanbul is not presented as anything particularly out of the ordinary, leaving us wondering what exactly Lo’s message is intended to be.
Stray is released digitally on 26th March, with special previews to celebrate National Puppy Day on 23rd March. For tickets and more information: stray-film.co.uk. Stray is also out on Blu-ray on 26th April from Dogwoof.