“Human beings live artificially and hypocritically and would do well to study the dog.”
– Diogenes of Sinope, 360 BC
Elizabeth Lo’s Stray is one of those wonderful documentaries that engages you from the opening shot. As well as splicing in philosophy quotes throughout – including the one above – on the nature of dogs in the lives of humans, she films at their level and follows a dog, who we’ll learn is called Zeytin, waking up, wandering around a local beach and meeting up with fellow drifting dogs in the city of Istanbul, quintessentially making it a point-of-view angle, as if we’re following in a pack.
She also offers a little onscreen background, by informing us that Turkish authorities have tried to get rid of stray dogs for the past 100 years by carrying out intermittent mass killings on canines but the residents rose up, protests took place and now it’s illegal to kill or hold one captive. Because of this, stray dogs are a common sight but Lo’s documentary will show us how they’ve managed to find a balance in their day-to-day, with citizens pretty much accepting them, and even those who look after them during their everyday jobs.
This story isn’t about any old mutts though, we specifically follow three who are Nazar, Kartal and Zeytin, the latter who is pretty much our wonderful lead throughout. It’s clear why she was chosen, she has an expressive face with a friendly, open persona, pacing the streets through the day, watching the cars go by on busy roads and sniffing out the smell of food that drifts through the air on the streets of Istanbul. It’s apparent she does what she can to survive, dragging bones out of the rubbish to eat, as well as the occasion cat chase and making a mess, like every dog does.
As well as watching the true spirit of the dogs, including strays meeting strays with distant caution, tail wags and acknowledgments – which are fascinating – you get a feeling of the character of each animal. As they drift through the active streets, we hear snippets of real-life conversation, flashes of confrontation and see the distinction between strays and pet dogs. While Zeytin gives ‘pet’ dogs the chance to be kind, as she’s being, the underlying psychological study turns to the distrust of the human owners, who judge her before she’s given the chance. What makes this entire process even more insightful is what follows because the dogs meet up with Syrian refugees, who are mostly younger adults and children, who also walk the streets looking for food and shelter. Somehow, and maybe this is the thing we all miss, the connection between how we treat dogs and human beings is troublingly dissimilar.
Much of Stray then takes us into the lives of the refugees and the dogs, and their place in one another’s lives. While the people are moved on and accused of many things, why this happens isn’t always clear, but there’s still plenty of sensitivity here to. There’s a moment where Zeytin fights with another dog for some food but the refugees put themselves at risk to separate them, but then… make sure she’s okay. There’s also another instant when the refugee kids run out to a soup kitchen and you think it’s all for them but, they’re bringing back food for the dogs, which only intensifies the relationship.
Stray is a story of resilience from a perspective you’ve not seen before, it brings both a sense of humanity and respect to its lead dogs, and never fails to put the question in your mind regarding how we treat each other as human beings. While it has a short runtime at 72 minutes, I did ponder whether it was too long because there’s lingering, where things aren’t really happening, which isn’t always as captivating as what comes before, but then this is also about society, about our individual stories and is much deeper than the obvious surface level you’d expect on a first look. This is a documentary about all of us, trying to connect, endeavouring to be a part of it all and that’s what stands out to make Elizabeth Lo’s documentary so unpredictably persuasive.