Stray is a restrained, poignant study of abandoned souls, dog and human alike.
Stray, the title of Elizabeth Lo’s mesmerizingly observational documentary, nominally refers to the dogs roaming the streets of Istanbul, dogs which the film follows in sweeping, impressively-executed tracking shots from dog’s-eye level, perhaps a corollary to Ozu’s famous tatami camera views. However, as the film progresses, it becomes clear that some of these eponymous strays are also human. Shot from 2017 to 2019 — scenes of crowded streets and bustling cafés making one wistful for pre-pandemic times — Stray centers mostly on a muscular female bruiser named Zeytin (meaning “olive” in Turkish), with dark, soulful eyes that convey a wealth of experience. An opening title card explains why Zeytin is able to roam so freely throughout the streets in the scenes that follow: after a long-standing governmental policy of mass euthanizing stray dogs, a successful protest movement subsequently made it illegal to kill or confine strays. As such, these dogs are able to wander unmolested throughout the streets, leading to some amusing interactions with the documentary’s human subjects, most of which are observed in brief, fleeting fragments of glimpsed lives. In one scene, two dogs mate in the midst of a women’s rights protest march; one woman yells to the male dog that he should get her consent first. In another scene, a couple of Chinese women curse harshly in Mandarin at a dog that has defecated near their picnic area.
The dogs’ interactions with each other are also keenly observed. Zeytin at one point gets into a vicious fight with another dog, and at a different time, cozies up to a smaller, pampered domestic pooch wearing a fancy raincoat. It’s a little too close for comfort for the dog’s owner, who quickly puts some distance between Zeytin and his precious pet. Zeytin, as well as two other dogs — one named Nazar and the other an impossibly cute puppy named Kartal — are often cared for by three human “strays,” Syrian refugee boys named Jamil, Halil, and Ali, all of whom wander the streets sniffing glue and later shelter in construction sites at night. In contrast to the dogs, who are fed and indulged by passersby as they forage for food and stroll about, the Syrian refugees are largely shunned and shooed, regarded as an obtrusive nuisance. The sociopolitical and humanistic implications of this are obvious, but Lo’s patiently non-judgmental camera — she served as her own cinematographer — never overenunciates this aspect of Turkish society, trusting viewers to draw their own conclusions from the images on screen. One of the frequent title-card quotes in the film, courtesy of the famously dog-loving Greek philosopher Diogenes, reads: “Human beings live artificially and hypocritically and would do well to study the dog.” Stray, to its credit, excels at studying both dog and human with equal delicacy and compassion.