The Turkish word zeytin, which means “olive,” sometimes doubles as a complimentary adjective used to define a pair of deeply expressive, dark-colored eyes. With that context in mind, the Istanbul street dog much of Elizabeth Lo’s virtuosic feature documentary debut “Stray” tracks couldn’t have been more appropriately named. From the first moment Lo, an award-winning filmmaker of mostly documentary shorts, graces the screen with a closeup of Zeytin, it’s the canine’s eyes that register. Possessing a dramatic screen quality with her striking gaze, elegant lashes and playfully twitching and raising eyebrows, Zeytin steadily lends the film a piece of her incorruptible purity that at once enchants and strengthens spirits.
Thanks to the mutt’s magnificent orbs, one feels a soul-baring affinity with the fearless Zeytin as she searches for kindness while wandering and conquering the streets of Istanbul. It’s a tough town, but the young outcast quickly proves to be a savvy survivor, who’s somehow managed to make sense of that city’s one-of-a-kind chaos which “Stray” portrays with stunning, head-spinning precision. For starters, Zeytin remarkably seems to know how to cross the street even on the bustling outskirts of Galata and the Golden Horn, whom to schmooze for food and whose chatter to eavesdrop on.
In fairness, these urban achievements aren’t unique to Lo’s lead dog. Marked by its unusual stance in the world through its governmental support of wild street dogs, Turkey is filled with untouched independent pups that peacefully live on their own terms. It hasn’t always been this way however — the country has had mass killings of strays since 1909 — but thanks to extensive and effective protests, it is now illegal to euthanize or confine strays in Turkey. Consequently, like the Istanbul street cats playfully portrayed in Ceyda Torun’s “Kedi,” dogs of the same metropolis have also been defiantly roaming freely for quite sometime and are at one with the communities where they live.
In that regard, Zeytin is not alone in her excursions — in her pack are also the caring doggie Nazar and timid puppy Kartal, as well as a trio of homeless, heartbreakingly adrift Syrian refugee boys who take it one day at a time, sheltering in construction sites, sleeping in dilapidated buildings at night, sniffing glue and finding some sense of homey comfort and belonging in the nonjudgmental dogs’ presence. So as Lo follows the group of vagabonds going about their days in the unforgiving city, not missing a single detail about the way dogs move, play and rest — sometimes, solitary, other times, alongside the boys — the film’s title “Stray” gradually assumes a dual emotional and political connotation that encompasses more than one species. With her low-to-the ground, intimate camera and richly assembled sequences that add up to 72 economic minutes (she is also the cinematographer and editor here), Lo inspects both the faultlines and fringes of the Turkish society and ponders profound philosophical questions concerning humanity. Throughout the mostly wordless “Stray,” we wonder with compassion and considerable self-critique whom the society uplifts and supports vs. whom it chooses to disregard and deem invisible.
While the answer the film suggests isn’t always pleasant, Lo refuses to succumb to perennial doom and gloom, and instead, highlights flourishes of kindness wherever she stumbles upon them. The kids and dogs sometimes go unnoticed, and sometimes get dismissed with distressing meanness; but other times, they get a taste of human generosity, too. In various scenes that burst with neorealistic touches and microcosmic portraits, people either go out of their way to feed the pups, who are otherwise used to digging through trash or fighting over a bone, or give them a little head scratch and a nourishing smile. Lo decisively remains observational and non-manipulative no matter what the scenario is, an attitude that positions her film closer in character to “Los Reyes,” Iván Osnovikoff and Bettina Perut’s 2019 documentary on a pair of Chilean strays that hang out at a skate park in Santiago, rather than the more stagey and talky “Kedi.”
In that, “Stray” organically builds its narrative, amplified by the work of “Leviathan” sound designer Ernst Karel that molds echoes of ezan (call to prayer), gridlocked traffic jams, women’s day street protests and private café chatters of friends and couples into an urban musical opus with a strange and singular beauty. Completing Lo’s thoughtfully knitted, humor-infused canvas are various quotes from dog-loving Greek philosopher Diogenes of Sinope, sprinkled over the film through sporadic title cards. “Human beings live artificially and hypocritically and would do well to study the dog,” one of them reads. Placing among the upper ranks of films for dog lovers, “Stray” successfully takes this mission to heart, revealing in the process not only the wholesomeness of humans’ four-legged best friends, but also the soulful voice of an exciting new filmmaker with immense moral queries on her mind.