Review: Stray

What is it about Istanbul and stray animals? In 2016 we had the documentary Kedi, which celebrated the famous stray cats of the city. Now, we have director Elizabeth Lo, who grew up in Hong Kong and studied film in the U.S., taking a knee-level view of stray dogs in the same city, and conveying something very different, something sadder and deeper. In a way, that makes sense, since we tend to think of cats as more independent-natured and thus more resilient to the environmental pressures of living on the streets of a major metropolis. Moreoever, stray cats, by their very nature and appearance, tend to receive more sympathy from the average human, whereas dogs, which are considered needier and more socially minded, evoke stronger emotions, both positive and negative. At the beginning of Lo’s documentary, we’re informed that at one time Istanbul had a policy of rounding up all stray dogs and putting them down, but public opinion was strongly against this policy and now they are allowed to roam free.

Lo’s main subject is the female mutt Zeytin, who acts the part almost too well: melancholy in demeanor, purposeful in behavior, physically robust. As befits such a subject, the narrative (without narration) is random and episodic, a series of encounters with inviduals both two-legged and four- that, in its own way, elucidates Zeytin’s personality, while at the same time through accumulation of detail conveys what life on the streets is like in Istanbul, which means hanging out not only with dogs but with street people, including children, who sniff glue or otherwise make life bearable under these circumstances. This is the film’s main stylistic and thematic difference with Kedi, which mostly focused on the emotional nexus between the city’s working population and its feline underground. In that regard, Lo gets the most dramatic mileage from how Zeytin and her ilk are adored and despised in equal measure, depending on whom the camera is depicting in reaction to the dogs’ various actions. If the denizens of Istanbul seem to like stray cats better than stray dogs it has less to do with these respective species’ appearance or appeal to human feelings than it does with what they do in public. It’s obvious that Lo means to hide nothing, and we see the dogs not only rutting and defecating and rummaging through garbage, but the humans observing these actions, usually in a state of appalled disgust. Consequently, when near the end of the movie Lo juxtaposes this sort or response to the situation regarding homeless immigrants, who are natural allies, as well as defenders, of the stray canines, a point is made that is both powerful and awkwardly exploitative. You can’t help but wonder what Lo’s purpose was at the outset. 

No dialogue (though some Turkish background speaking). Now playing in Tokyo at Human Trust Cinema Shibuya (03-5468-5551).

Stray home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2020 This Was Argos, LLC

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