There’s no denying that dogs have been a popular topic for movies for a long time. Beethoven and Lassie are both American children’s institutions, Marley and Me caused many a tear to be shed upon release, and even indie movies like Wiener Dog place canines at their core. This is no different in the world of documentaries – on Netflix alone, as of writing this review, there is an entire docu-series dedicated to the bond between dog and owner around the world. Therefore, when I sat down to watch Stray, I wasn’t expecting anything groundbreaking. And while the film is incredibly simple, the stunning execution and carefully woven thematic strands turn the film into something special.
Almost the entirety of the story centres around the life of Zeytin, a large tan stray who lives the life of a nomad. Where she goes, we follow, perched upon her back or creeping behind her paws as she navigates her personal playground of Istanbul. Along the way, she encounters a group of young homeless men multiple times – these are the closest thing she has to a family, and they seem to be the only humans that truly understand her plight. But this isn’t to say that director Elizabeth Lo leans into anthropomorphism or pity to enhance the emotional side of her story. Instead, she allows Zeytin to simply exist, letting you draw your own conclusions about the her situation and that of thousands of other dogs.
This open ended approach to the filmmaking is aided by a minimalist shooting style that primarily uses long takes on a handheld camera to keep track of Zeytin’s antics, letting you take in Istanbul through her eyes. The lack of a score in many places also enhances the sense that we are viewing life from her perspective, and the sparse dialogue allows the film to feel truly universal – if there were no subtitles, I would have enjoyed it an equal amount. However, there are frequent stretches where all you see is a dog’s behind walking down a street, and though I appreciated the ambiance, I respect that this might not be for every viewer.
As mentioned earlier, Lo’s ability to gesture towards themes is masterful in Stray, especially regarding how obtuse and bureaucratic modern relationships of all kinds can be. Zeytin often passes by quarrelling couples or friends recounting the complexities of their love life, contrasted with her own interactions with other dogs that usually consist of a smell, a brief fight, and total acceptance into the pack for however long they remain together. This unity of circumstance is reflected in the young men Zeytin joins, Lo aligning them with dogs in the most flattering way possible (this is implied also by the interjection of philosophical quotes regarding the high moral calibre of canines). Both are rejected by conventional society which leads to the creation of their own familial units, clearly suffering and yet benefiting from avoidance of social structures that seem to plague other relationships in the film.
Stray is simple in concept and execution, and sometimes that’s exactly the treatment an idea needs. Lo has enough confidence in her chosen subject to let it speak for itself, using the medium of documentary filmmaking to provide a voice for the voiceless as it has so many times in the past. It goes without saying that you’ll enjoy this more if you’re a self-identified dog person, but I challenge anyone not to be fascinated by Zeytin and her quiet adventures.
Stray plays at the London Film Festival and will be getting a UK release at a later date via Dogwoof.
You can read more of our coverage of LFF 2020 here.
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