Who’s a good boy? Documentary ‘Stray’ follows Istanbul street dogs

March 29, 2021

Dogs are the best. Everyone knows this. From their natural playfulness to their ferocious loyalty to their advanced napping skills, dogs are a model of how to live life properly. The Greek philosopher Diogenes of Sinope thought so, too:

Human beings live artificially and hypocritically and would do well to study the dog.

So reads one of the introductory title cards to director Elizabeth Lo’s masterful new documentary, Stray, which tracks a trio of wild street dogs through the streets of Istanbul over the course of several months. Istanbul is unique among major world cities in that dogs are allowed to run wild throughout the metropolis. In fact, it’s illegal to euthanize or confine strays anywhere in Turkey.

Using a low-to-the-ground, dog’s-eye-view camera, Lo follows these dogs as they go about their day, scavenging food from street vendors, dodging traffic, and stoically accepting the occasional ear scritch from passersby. Lo’s style is strictly old-school and observational. Nothing is framed for drama or cutesiness. Instead, we’re invited to marvel at the calm self-reliance and amazing resourcefulness of the pups.

The star of this remarkable film is Zeytin, a tawny-colored mutt with dark and expressive eyes. The camera often lingers in extreme close-up on Zeytin as she surveys her surroundings, and the effect is startling. You can see thoughts and feelings moving across her face and body as the city bustles all around.

Packs of dogs form and disband throughout the day and the cameras occasionally split off to track Zeytin’s supporting cast—the affectionate doggo, Nazar, and shy puppy, Kartal. The dogs seem to have been named by their regular neighbors, the vendors and workers who treat the roaming packs as just another fact of urban life.

Quite deliberately, the film regularly cuts to another trio: three teenage Syrian refugees who are also living on the streets of Istanbul. The boys and the dogs team up some nights, sharing makeshift beds in abandoned construction sites. By paralleling these two groups of survivors, the film offers a kind of oblique commentary on Turkish society at street level. Mirrored sequences show how the city dwellers treat the dogs, and how they treat the refugees.

The film passes no judgment on what it observes, and there are no cheap tableaus of manufactured outrage. This is just how it is. Actually, both the boys and the dogs are often treated with similar kindness, which is a complicated moral observation in itself. One powerful scene shows the boys racing off to queue up for free food handed out by a social service provider. The kids take the plates back to their sidewalk campsite and immediately scrape off half for the dogs.

 lovers may be scared off by the premise of this documentary, or worry that it’s some grim portrait of suffering. There’s nothing to fear, though. No animals are hurt or even particularly distressed over the course of the film. Well, a couple dogs get into a halfhearted fight over food at one point, and a cat gets chased up a tree. But the filmmakers are chasing a different kind of vibe, one in which we’re invited to admire the ragged nobility of these beautiful city animals.

Stray is a positively uplifting film, in the end—a celebration of the canine spirit, you might say. (And, at only 72 minutes, it’s oddly short for a feature doc.) Be sure to stay for the end credits—the filmmakers saved their best shot for last.

Read more film reviews at Indy Week.

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