M, 71 minutes

4 Stars


Review by ©  Jane Freebury

It’s a doggie world in Stray. A singular doco about the dogs that live on the streets of the great city of Istanbul, where, far from being feared or avoided, they are patted, fed and even cared for.

It’s not every day that a film begins with a view from derriere. The camera so often takes this position while filming Zeytin, Nazir and Kartal, the three street hounds who are the focus of this animal-centred documentary, that we get used to it from the very start.

The dogs of Istanbul, and cats too, have free reign in the city. They have been roaming the city for a long time. A tragedy that struck the city was linked, superstitiously, to radical steps taken to clear animals from the streets, and strays have been free to roam ever since.

It’s remarkable to read that although authorities have been trying since the early 1900s to deal with this problem, it remains illegal to euthanise them or to hold them captive. Massive public resistance to measures to reduce the number of strays has resulted in the half a million or so stray dogs who live there now.

This documentary with its delightfully left-field subject and narration-free, observational feel, comes from Elizabeth Lo, a filmmaker born and raised in Hong Kong, who is now based in the US. She was writer, cinematographer and producer in this, her first feature. It took her two years to make.

It so happens that Stray has a companion piece, the documentary Kedi on the stray cats of Istanbul, that was directed by Ceyda Torun. Since its release 5 years ago it has won many international film awards and nomination. Awards and nominations are lining up for Stray, too.

A certain inherent dignity in natural behaviour that doesn’t call for subterfuge of any kind

The film opens with a quote by the philosopher Diogenes the Cynic who in 360 BC was saying that humans live artificially and hypocritically and would do well to study the dog. Stray may try a little too hard to achieve a level of seriousness with its intertitles, many are quotes from Diogenes, but it achieves a certain gravity anyway.

Some of the cast in Stray. Image courtesy Magnolia Pictures

While the controversial philosopher was deeply critical of Athenian society during his day, saying that a dog would recognise and bite a scoundrel, in other writing he appears to be less complimentary towards the animal. But the quotes in the intertitles help us reflect on the honesty of the dog, and a certain inherent dignity in natural behaviour that doesn’t call for subterfuge of any kind.

The life of a stray in the city of Istanbul doesn’t look half bad, and without any need to look out for the dog catcher van. There is even a healthy expectation that someone will actually feed you, even provide shelter. No, it looks like the dog’s life in Istanbul isn’t so bad at all.

What’s more, it is full of diversions. Chasing the occasional cat, wagging tails at new doggie acquaintances and making friends, getting a pat on the head from people passing. The overall impression of the footage that Lo presents to us is of a surprisingly harmonious society.

We trot with the dogs past the gossip in street cafés, past the street art and posters, past fishermen on the bridge, and along the waterfront and through condemned neighbourhoods awaiting knockdown, where the homeless hang out.

The dogs befriend young Syrian refugees who also live on the streets, but illegally

Following the dogs around makes for a fascinating perspective on the Turkish capital and a heady sense of place. You could almost smell the deep-fried pastries as they trundled past in street-sellers’ carts. Enhanced by the beautiful score by Austrian composer Ali Helnwein, Stray develops like a meditative experience.

Zeytin, Nazir and Kartal befriend a group of young Syrian refugees who also live on the streets, but illegally. Jamil, Halil and the two Alis, so young and vulnerable and living life day by day, gravitate poignantly towards the affectionate street dogs, whose body warmth gives them comfort at night.

The dome of Santa Sophia, glimpsed at top of frame from time to time, never seems far away, and is another reminder that Istanbul on the Bosphorus is where East meets West.

If you thought you were imagining the dogs pricking up their ears to the muezzin call to prayer early on, you would be right. Zeytin sings along to it as final credits roll.

First published in the Canberra Times on 27 November 2021. Jane’s reviews are also published on Rotten Tomatoes