Stray: behind the scenes of the film that gives us a street dog’s perspective

Director Elizabeth Lo tells us about the experience of working with the unconventional stars of her debut feature: the stray dogs of Istanbul.

25 March 2021

By Whelan Barzey

Stray (2020)

Shot over the course of three years, festival hit Stray follows the lives of street dogs Zeytin, Nazar and Kartal as they navigate contemporary Istanbul. We are also given an insight into the harsh realities of Syrian refugee children, who interact with the dogs, their experiences often overlapping and leading to a compassionate bond.

It goes without saying that there is no shortage of differences between dogs and humans, but we do inhabit the same spaces. Stray is a documentary that deconstructs the invisible barriers between both worlds, allowing us to explore urban Turkey in a uniquely and perspective-altering way. 

Here, debut feature director Elizabeth Lo tells us about the lived experiences, thought processes and compassion that delivered her film to the world.

What made you want to tell this story?

It came from a very personal place. My childhood dog, Mikey, had passed away, and I always felt like he deserved more in life. I decided to make a film that gave narrative time and space to beings like him – lives that aren’t normally seen as worthy of that kind of attention. Much like Virginia Woolf’s Flush [an imaginative biography of a cocker spaniel], I knew I wanted Stray to be told entirely and truly from a dog’s perspective – and not an anthropomorphic projection using animals as a vehicle as so many other films have done, but truly be about trying to use the medium of film to represent a dog’s life. 

The film seems to draw a comparison between the position of stray dogs and the most ostracised in our society. Is that how you see it? 

To me, it’s truly two sides of the same coin. I think when we talk about hierarchies of power and perceived powerlessness, cruelty at the peripheries will always come to haunt the centre. Oppression of the nonhuman will eventually find its way to the human, from the poor to the middle class, from the non-citizen to the citizen.

I don’t like the observation that the dogs in the film are somehow treated better than their human companions – focusing on that feels like missing the point, and gives legitimacy to the idea that certain beings should be held up above others just because of their species, gender, race or citizenship status, which is exactly the kind of destructive, dominant narrative that the film is trying to resist.  

There’s a strong sense of humanity in you when you speak about the human condition. Have you always been like this?

I’m not sure why I’m drawn to these stories, but maybe it’s a combination of growing up in Hong Kong, where inequality is extreme. Being exposed to anti-colonial narratives like Things Fall Apart by Achebe or Grendel (which situates you in the perspective of the monster instead of the ‘hero’ Beowulf) in school affected my worldview a lot. These types of books taught me to question dominant narratives. And perhaps not growing up in the United States also helped me to not take western systems of thought about who or which worldview matters as the only truths. 

Does dealing with such heavy topics in your films take a mental toll on you?

I think the process of editing the footage and feeling like I’m contributing by getting the story right – compellingly conveying a situation to a lay audience who is not at all convinced or concerned about an issue – is how I process and cope with the heaviness. I realise it’s an extreme privilege to be in a position to be able to tell and record these stories, so I feel a lot of responsibility to both the participants of these films and also my audiences.

Was it more difficult working with animals than humans?

Not at all. Working with all the dogs of Stray across Turkey is one of the best experiences of my life, and I wish I could replicate it for every future film. My dog Jack is also a rescue. Despite her size, she was indispensable in helping me figure out what rigs worked and didn’t with dogs during my test shoots, so I’ll always be grateful to her help in the making of Stray.

Stray (2020)

Was there an audition process for the dogs or was it a case of working with what was available?

Zeytin emerged as one of the only stray dogs who didn’t inadvertently follow us back after extensive filming – so she really embodied the independent, nonhuman gaze that we were seeking to envelop audiences in: a canine existence that wasn’t dictated by human ownership or will.

She could also look straight past me no matter how close I got to her face with my camera. That was a rare quality – perhaps she even possessed an unselfconscious star quality like certain humans have. 

The interactions between the dogs and the refugee children are very organic. Did you facilitate their coming together? 

That relationship predated my arrival in Istanbul. Zeytin and Nazar led me to the young men. Their on-and-off-again relationship with the boys was really compelling to me. The Syrian boys had this profound desire to take care of the dogs, which I’m sure had to do with how the dogs’ presence in the boys’ lives created a sense of belonging on the streets, despite being displaced in a country not their own. 

How key to the film was keeping the dialogue minimal?

I think it being largely dialogue-free was important because the dogs aren’t hanging onto our every word, so the audience shouldn’t either. In part, the film is seeking an older language – based on body gestures, sounds and calls – that goes beyond our human emphasis on the verbal.

How were you and your team able to deliver such a unique experience through sound?

I had the privilege of working with composer Ali Helnwein who composed those dizzying strings set against the rich, ambient soundscape created by sound designer Ernst Karel, who is behind such films as Leviathan (2012) and Sweetgrass (2009).

I worked with Ernst to develop an aural language for how to cinematically represent canine hearing: a world in which human dialogue becomes radically secondary to heightened frequencies, and where Ali Helnwein’s distorted classical score is set against the gritty, lived experiences of those whom society has left behind. 

Filming Stray (2020)

From your perspective, does being a stray mean to be able to call everywhere your home or nowhere?

I think there’s a qualitative difference between people and animals living without homes, and I don’t think a meaningful comparison can be made. The dogs seemed very content in Istanbul to be free to call any pavement their home, whereas for humans who were homeless, it was a hardship to endure.  

Do you still think about the dogs and the children involved in the film?

Yes, of course. Our co-producer Zeynep Köprülü, who lives in Istanbul, will send me pictures from her phone whenever she runs into Zeytin or the boys. My heart warms to know that Zeytin is still living her life, and I feel sad for the young men growing up without infrastructure to support their lives or education because of the wars ravaging their homelands.

During the pandemic, Turkey’s government and the people still put out food for all the stray animals despite the lockdown, which didn’t surprise me at all given what I’ve come to know about the deep cultural bond with stray animals there. 

As a filmmaker of Asian heritage and a woman, would you say that the path you have had to navigate has been more difficult than others?

Who knows what it would be like if I happened to occupy a role in society that is perceived to come with more authority or power? But if I did, I probably wouldn’t be making the films that I do, or in the way that I do.  

Is there any work from you in the future that we should be looking out for? If not, do you have any recommendations of other things we should be watching?

Watch Victor Kossakovsky’s Gunda whenever it is released. It’s a stunning, devastating masterpiece that casts a mother pig in the most beautiful, profound light, and one of the most important films I’ve seen in at least the last decade. 

Stray is in virtual cinemas and on demand on BFI Player from 26 March 2020.

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