What an odd but quaint little documentary this is. Stray offers a dog’s eye view of Istanbul as filmmaker Elizabeth Lo follows Zeytin and her fellow stray dogs for two years, capturing the mundane and monotony of life on the streets.
A title card at the beginning of Stray explains how Turkey is one of the only countries where it’s illegal to capture or euthanise stray dogs. This has led to what seems like hundreds of dogs roaming the streets, just living their lives, looking for food and having sex and fights. It’s quite something to see so many dogs just wandering in amongst the locals and the tourists, showing no fear of people whatsoever. In fact, it sometimes seems like the dogs own the place as Zeytin doesn’t even move out of the way of vehicles until she’s good and ready.
Following Zeytin for 70 minutes you get to see her personality shine through. There are moments where she jumps around and plays with other dogs but likewise there’s times where it appears she crosses paths with dogs from the wrong side of the tracks and vicious fights break out. There’s a moment when she encounters another dog, and they stare at each other like they’re having a Mexican standoff before bounding to one another and it’s like she’s greeting an old friend. There’s just a lot of nice dog interactions here people.
The way Stray is shot is interesting as the camera appears to be at Zeytin’s level more often than not and she’s not bothered by it at all. Having the camera so closely follow the dogs means you really are seeing the nitty gritty of their lives, the side streets and dustbins, the people who ignore them and the few that share out their food. As Zeytin and the other dogs are the focus of pretty much every shot of this documentary, you often only get a view of people from the waist down, and you very rarely see their faces. Instead you hear snippets of everyday conversations about things like dates and work.
The people you do get to see more of, are the ones who often don’t have anything to give Zeytin and the other dogs expect love. Young Syrian men and boys who are also living on the streets form a camaraderie with Zeytin and the dogs. They share their food with them while Zeytin and the others share their warmth as they all lay huddled in places like abandoned building sites. These teenagers have nothing but the dogs they’ve bonded with and soon it becomes clear that the stray dogs may be treated by people better than the refugees, or at least with less contempt.
Stray attempts to shine a light on the marginalised, and makes you think about how we as a society treat the less fortunate – whether they are human or animal. Not a lot happens in Stray, but it is a thoughtful documentary and if you like seeing dogs just being dogs then Stray is worth a watch.