London Film Festival 2020
“Human beings live artificially and hypocritically and would do well to study the dog.” — Diogenes of Sinope, 300 B.C.
Diogenes, who opens the film, is not wrong. Shot in Istanbul by director Elizabeth Lo over the course of two years, the brilliant Stray is an empathetic, fly-on-the-wall study of what it means to be a city dog with no owner. Focusing primarily on the life of female mongrel Zeytim, it questions the place of kind-hearted dogs in a cruel man’s world.
Istanbul has a curious relationship with strays. After a nationwide euthanasia program by the Turkish government, and the backlash that followed, the government decreed that it was illegal to euthanize or cage wild dogs. This has led to the mega-city being awash in stray animals.
The camera follows this particular dog from her eye-level; she serves as both the film’s moral compass and tour guide, showing us the beaches, cafes, and construction sites of the Turkish capital. In some of the film’s most fascinating scenes, we often overhear snippets of random human conversation, ranging from relationship squabbles to the political reality of Turkish life. By seeing the world through a dog’s eyes, the film also forces us to think from a dog’s perspective.
While a film that focuses entirely on the life of a dog could easily become plotless, Zeytim becomes a steady companion of a group of homeless Syrian refugees, giving them comfort in a world that offers them little hope of humane treatment. Their relationship together is incredibly sweet, with both refugee and dog living each day as it comes. The political point of the film comes through the juxtaposition between the way the dogs are treated compared to these young Syrian boys. While the dogs are mostly allowed to live as they want, the refugees are constantly criticized by passers-by, with random people constantly giving them lectures on what they should do with their life. Most tellingly, they stray dogs have government tags, but the refugees remain paperless.
Along with Space Dogs, which filmed stray dogs in Moscow, and Victor Kossakovsky’s wordless Gunda, capturing animals in farms, it seems that naturalistic animal portraits are gaining in relevance. Perhaps, after seeing quite how terribly humans have handled the world, it is up to the animals, especially dogs, to show us the way to live. But while Space Dogs uses a sci-fi conceit to examine human cruelty and Gunda over-stylises each frame with intense black-and-white close-ups, Stray is a mostly naturalistic experience: often you can see the focus being hastily pulled in the middle of a shot, stressing the shoot-from-the-hip approach of producer-writer-director-editor Elizabeth Lo.
One gets the sense that Lo kept filming until she found a natural ending. The third act concerns the fate of a second dog, the beautiful black-and-white Kartal, Stray interrogating the fate of both animal and man alike. This review hasn’t even gone into just how damm adorable the whole thing is. Containing almost none of the grisliness and violence found in Space Dogs, it doubles up the cuteness to an absolutely wonderful degree. This is a must-watch for dog lovers everywhere.