by Alistair Ryder
On paper, Stray looks like nothing more than the canine lover’s much needed answer to the 2016 film Kedi. That surprise documentary smash followed some of the cats who roam the streets of Istanbul, speaking with the residents who interact with them daily – a deceptively slight study of the relationship between man and beloved animal. Stray makes for an effective companion piece, but offers more food for thought than merely replacing cats with dogs, putting the citizen’s residents firmly in the background as we get a dog’s eye view of the massive changes occurring across the country. It’s a unique way of examining the country’s further slide into authoritarianism under the leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, all under the unassuming gaze of three stray dogs.
Turkey is one of the few countries where it has been made illegal to euthanise stray dogs, due to widespread protests when this policy was proposed. Director Elizabeth Lo sets up camp in a Turkey where relations between man and dog are normalised – few people bat an eyelid at dogs roaming the streets as they observe the quirks of human life from a distance. As they scavenge for food and shelter across the city, they encounter people on the fringes of society, from protesters who rarely have their voices heard, to houseless people similarly in need of safety and shelter.
Much like Kedi, Stray could easily be edited into an anthropomorphised documentary in the same vein as Disney Nature’s output, adding an unnecessary narrative to its canine characters’ daily lives in a city where they often get overlooked. Mercifully, this isn’t the case, with introductory sequences of dog rivalries and attempts to scavenge for food soon giving way to hearing the troubles of various residents in the city. The three dogs who feature, Zeytin, Nazar, and Kartal, are constantly foregrounded in a manner that you could reductively compare to Terrence Malick if you wished; the viewer witnessing nature existing peacefully while various divisions ruin any chance of harmony in the human world in the background.
Despite featuring a depth of insight into Turkey’s marginalised communities, Elizabeth Lo resists any opportunity to transform her film into an overt political statement, let alone an incendiary one. The only time her film speaks directly to the audience is to offer philosophical insight on the historic nature of the relationship between man and dog – a clumsy framing device that the film would be much stronger without. However, if the film is aiming to reach the Marley & Me crowd (the dog owners who will eagerly watch anything entered around some good boys), this approach may prove to be a better gateway into a film that indirectly asks deeper questions about the audience’s moral values. Those who click play expecting some hijinks from street dogs roaming one of the world’s most beautiful cities may be taken aback by how the film correlates their struggles with those of Syrian refugees, homeless people, and other citizens on the fringes of society, all but asking why a nation of dog lovers can’t afford the same empathy to their fellow man.
Filmed between 2017 and 2019, Stray takes in several major changes in the country, from the referendum that granted the President powers widely regarded as unconstitutional, to a range of mass protests. Keeping with the dog’s eye view of the world, Lo’s film never offers any direct commentary, instead showing how the plight of these animals remains the same even as the nation gets increasingly torn on social issues. It’s a fairly simple thesis, which makes the documentary all the more effective – we never take our eyes off the dogs, but even from their bemused viewpoint, we can’t help but see the injustices wherever they roam.
If you’re a dog lover, you’ll find much to admire with Stray, but the quietly powerful social commentary makes it of interest to more than just your average pet owner.
Stray is out on VOD on 26 March
Listen to our interview with Elizabeth Lo!