Elizabeth Lo's film Stray is not just about Istanbul's street dogs

Five years ago, Istanbul’s iconic and beloved street cats were given the star treatment in the film Kedi. Now it is the turn of the feral dogs, the other ubiquitous animals that roam Istanbul’s streets, and with whom the city has a much more fraught relationship. Directed by Elizabeth Lo and available to stream beginning March 5, Stray is a gorgeously framed mediation on the beauty, pain, joy, and struggle of life in Istanbul for canines and humans alike.

Our guide to Istanbul is Zeytin (Olive), an adult female whose large size, tan body, and dark points suggests that her ancestors belonged to the Kangal breed, the shepherd dog of the Anantolian steps. Her genetics may have been shaped by the need to guard livestock in a rural environment, but Zeytin is a thoroughly urban dog. She navigates her city with the ease of any local. She is completely unbothered by the noise, and danger, posed by the constant flow of traffic, crossing streets and weaving through crowds with purpose.

The film opens, and is punctuated throughout, with quotes from Diogenes of Sinope, a Greek philosopher whose hometown is now part of Turkey, favorably comparing the life and virtues of dogs to people. And initially, when juxtaposed with the people she encounters, Zeytin’s life seems one of Edenic bliss. She goes where she wants, sleeps where she wants, chases cats, plays with other dogs, and is given a stream of endless pets by passers by. 

In contrast, on the fringes of the screen or as disembodied voices out of view of the camera, we are introduced to the quotidian problems faced by the human inhabitants of Zeytin’s city. People lament about their relationships, protest violence against women, clean the streets, and discuss politics all while Zeytin and other street dogs lounge carelessly nearby. 

The film takes a sudden turn when we hear her name called, and aroused from her normal languid state, she bounds happily into a crowd of boys. These are her people, another group of “strays,” Syrian refugee boys who also exist on the fringes of Istanbul life. These boys live a life that is nearly identical to that of Zeytin, but they bear the human curse of self awareness, and therefore suffer with the realization that they are not welcome in the city, or the larger society they inhabit. 

It is through and alongside the story of these boys that we get glimpses of how rough life really is for Zeytin. Like the boys, she struggles to find food and shelter, she is sweet and docile but is subject to sudden violent outbursts from people and other dogs, and she is an outlaw, forced to be constantly on the run from those who believe she doesn’t belong. 

It has become a common lament that in cases of war, violence, and human rights disasters that the suffering of animals often gets more attention than that of their human counterparts. Lo has cleverly used this truism to her advantage, drawing in an audience with promises of a story about dogs, and slipping in a story of ongoing human suffering. Zeytin doesn’t deserve to be rounded up and incarcerated simply for existing, and neither do her human counterparts. Neither of them chose to be strays, and they deserve a life free of fear, want, and struggle as much as any other creature they share the city with.

The camera never focuses on the iconic skyline, location, or monuments of the city it is set in, instead it tightly focuses on Zeytin, her fellow street dogs, and the refugee boys. Stray literally forces the viewer to look at Istanbul from the bottom up, and to consider that its most vulnerable inhabitants as equally worthy, and beautiful, beings.

Stray will be released online on March 5.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.