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It’s hard, perhaps impossible, to keep sentimentality entirely at bay when making a film about dogs – not that most filmmakers try – but Elizabeth Lo’s documentary comes close. Lo spent six months filming dogs on the streets of Istanbul, a city rich in the animals thanks to Turkish laws that forbid the killing or holding captive of stray dogs. (These laws were, a caption explains near the start of the film, the result of a backlash earlier this century against government campaigns of extermination.)
Stray concentrates mainly on Zeytin, a large, gentle, powerful young bitch (“If she was fed more, she can fuck anyone up,” an admirer remarks). The camera follows her, unnarrated, as she roams around the city, careless of the human infrastructures around her – she sets herself down on pavements or even in the road, letting cars and pedestrians flow round her, a picture of almost perfect freedom. Some sequences showing dogs at play have a powerful raw exuberance; at times the film recalls the extraordinary scenes of dogs overrunning a city in Kornél Mundruczó’s White God (2014). But a dog’s life can be terrifyingly precarious: there are a number of moments when it seems inevitable Zeytin will be run over, and a couple of unsettlingly vicious fights with other dogs.
There are other strays here. Zeytin and her friend Nazar spend a lot of their time with a group of homeless young refugees (Turkmens from Aleppo, we learn). These adolescents spend much of their days begging or sniffing glue, their nights sheltering in wrecked, windowless buildings, adrift; their love for the dogs is an anchor. The parallels between their lives and the dogs’ are painfully clear – except that the dogs are greeted almost everywhere with kindness, petted by passers by and fed by security guards.
Technically, the film is something of a marvel. Throughout, the camera stays low, so that we see things as if from a dog’s point of view – Lo achieved this, apparently, by herself crouching in what must have been an excruciating position. Some shots of Zeytin, in particular, are entrancing – close-ups of her expressive eyes, her twitching paw pads, her feet treading across wild flowers.
Excellent sound design by Ernst Karel (the deep-sea fishing documentary Leviathan, 2012) also offers a persuasive illusion of a dog’s perspective, scraps of speech emerging from background noise, sometimes coalescing into conversation: the Syrian boys worry about ID papers, a young man tells off a young woman for shamelessly accepting an Instagram follow from a man she barely knows. At one point, the dogs join a women’s night-time protest – letting the side down by beginning to rut in the middle of it all.
An episode involving the boys’ theft of a puppy has a narrative neatness at odds with the rest of the film, and it’s here that sentimentality pokes its nose in. The periodic insertion of quotations from Diogenes of Sinope (aka the Cynic – ‘the dog’) adds a hint of pretension, too, to a film that is by and large unflinchingly matter-of-fact, about both dogs and people.
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Sight & Sound May 2021
In our current issue, Barry Jenkins talks truth, justice and his powerfully resonant series adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. Plus Promising Young Woman and the virgin/whore trope, Aubrey Plaza on Black Bear, Martin Scorsese’s discovery of Joe Pesci, Dea Kulumbegashvili’s Beginning, and a classic Satyajit Ray interview. Available in print and digitally.Find out more and get a copy