Stray is a 2020 documentary that, like many other films during the pandemic, only got a more significant worldwide release in 2021.
We’re glad it did, as Elizabeth Lo’s documentary is a beautiful and thoughtful account of the homeless dogs across Turkey’s history Istanbul.
Like no other film before, you get a dog’s-eye view of the world around them as humanity goes about doing its thing.
Stray Makes Movie Stars of Istanbul’s Homeless Dogs
If you think of that Underwater Dogs book by Seth Casteel, this documentary has a similar mission. A candid account of dogs in their element.
However, Lo’s approach was to film the dog’s and inadvertently expose the human condition along the way. As the official site explains of the synopsis:
“Through the eyes of its stray dogs wandering the streets of Istanbul, Stray explores what it means to live as a being without status or security. As they search for food and shelter, three dogs—Zeytin, Nazar, and Kartal—embark on inconspicuous journeys through Turkish society that allow us an unvarnished portrait of human life.”
A bit of backstory is needed here. Instabul is home to between 400,000-600,000 stray dogs and cats.
In the 20th century, the government cracked down on this by exterminating the animals. But after public outcry, eventually strays became legal.
They’re now tagged and allowed to freely roam Istanbul—harming them in any way is illegal.
For Stray, Lo targeted three doggies and began following them (usually by herself) with a specially rigged camera.
The result is we tour around the beautiful streets of Istanbul with the three dogs, although it’s Zeytin who takes the lead role.
She’s stoic, independent, and wise, contemplating situations with a sense of cool and calm. There’s barely ever any fluster, apart from the occasional fight.
Then there’s Kartal (the puppy), who suffers from being way too cute for his own good. But he always seems to have an expression of sadness.
And Nazar, who often hangs out with Zeytin—they bicker over scraps of food.
As you’ll see from that clip, complement by Ali Helnwein’s soundtrack, Stray plays out in a way you might not expect.
There’s no narration and only occasional speech, only from the conversations caught of people nearby to Lo.
It made us think of Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011), the surprisingly excellent documentary about Jiro Ono’s life pursuit of sushi perfection. Now 96, apparently he’s still working and is the world’s oldest chef.
That film is a love letter to foodies. Stray is a love letter to dog fans, environmentalists, animal rights activist, and anyone with a sense of compassion or wanderlust.
Alongside the footage there are occasional quotes from Greek philosophers such as Diogenes, who famously gave up his life of luxury to live in a barrel.
“Human beings live artificially and hypocritically and would do well to study the dog.”
That’s one of his lines. So, yes, lots of things like that to make you consider the perspective of a dog’s place in this world.
And that’s where Stray excels. You enter the world of these dogs and the strange antics of the humans becomes secondary.
Instead, you take in the world around you—the beautiful city of Istanbul.
All while human tumult plays out around them. A group of homeless Syrian refugees, who love the dogs, generally get treated like shit throughout. Far worse than the dogs around them. They’re even arrested for sleeping on the streets.
Stray is, inadvertently, a film about the human condition. As told from the eyes of homeless dogs on the prowl for scraps of food and a crafty nap.
As strange as it sounds, when it’s at its best the documentary is beautiful. The closing five minutes are glorious—introspective.
And if you like doggies, then this really is the film for you.
At a sharp 70 minutes, you get extended walkies and close ups of dog noses, paws, and tails.
The Production of Stray
To get a dog’s-eye view of the world, Lo used a specially rigged camera.
She had two cameras. One was shoulder-mounted that could also be used on a tripod. The other was a EasyRig Vario 5 rig, which let her swoop in and out of scenes casually.
This was physically demanding for her, as she needed to wear it 12 hours a day whilst out and about filming. Lo has said of the production:
“At first it was really frustrating filming stray dogs, because I wasn’t able to understand what motivated them. I couldn’t understand why they just spent six hours sleeping and then woke up and went off chasing whatever sound or smell, usually something I was not aware of. It was really tough to keep up with them. It was exhausting.
But over time I got used to the rhythms of a stray dog’s life. Wake up at 5pm. Spend the whole night going on an adventure. Doing the rounds. Joining up with other packs of dogs. Whatever tickles your fancy. So we just kept at it and, depending on the personality of the dog, I kind of got to know what they were interested in. I adapted to their way of life, which was much slower, but then had these bursts of hyperactivity.”
To keep track of Zeytin and the others, at the end of a day shooting she’d attach a GPS tracking collar to them.
All the effort was worth it, as since its release Stray has met with considerable critical acclaim.