Documentary filmmaker Elizabeth Lo’s first full-length feature is a masterpiece.

Spoiler alert: No animals are harmed in this film, and definitely, no dogs die. That might be a strange way to start a film review, but in this case, I’m sure the filmmaker, Elizabeth Lo, will understand. She’s said that her impetus for making Stray, her first full-length feature film, was the death of her dog and her experience of the grieving process. It was a transformative moment for her—as she puts it, and the event that “propels Stray’s exploration into value, hierarchy and sentience.” The teaser can be seen here.1,2

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This quiet but yet extraordinary film takes place in and around Turkey’s capital city of Istanbul. It follows three unrelated stray dogs, adults Zeytin and Nazar and pup Kartal. Of the three, Zeytin is the lead protagonist of the 72-minute film. Source: 360 Communications, used with permission

Though stately and magnificent, she’s also vulnerable. Without dipping too deeply into anthropomorphism, I felt that she seized the camera lens. Like film divas of yesteryear—Marlene, Greta, or Ingrid—she captivates the viewer. 

Turkey has had a fraught history with its stray dog population. In the last century, it tried to annihilate them, but starting in 2004, it changed its policy in the face of widespread protests against these killings. Today, Turkey is the only country where it is actually illegal to euthanize stray dogs, or even to hold them captive. The country’s unowned dogs are free-roaming; as Lo has said referencing the status of these dogs, they are “emblem[s] of resistance—living manifestations of compassion in the face of intolerance.”

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The film, which has a nontraditional narrative, does not follow a single story arc. Rather, Lo notes that she left the narrative up to the dogs themselves. Her intent was to capture, lyrically and effectively, the unowned dogs’ day-to-day lives—what they face in their daily searches for food, shelter, and, to some degree, company. Source: 360 Communications, used with permission

That in itself is fascinating to any dog-lover. Lo’s camera also captures the dogs’ intersections with a trio of homeless Syrian refugees, young men who seem to be the ones who have given the dogs names. 

While the dogs don’t live with these young men, they do spend time with them, almost as though they are palling around with them. When the boys call their names, the dogs come running. Often accompanied by the dogs, the boys look for places to sleep in construction sites or simply on a quiet sidewalk; sadly, they also look for spots where they can indulge in their glue-sniffing habit. 

By snuggling with the boys as they sleep, the dogs function as both their protectors and sources of warmth, somewhat offsetting the lack of blankets and bedding. One can definitely see their genuine love and interdependency, the ways boys and dogs create a makeshift family group on the margins of society.

Though the film does not have a script, per se, it does have a distinctive aural quality, incorporating “found sounds”—street sounds or snatches of overheard conversation coming from nearby cafés (often having to do with relationship problems) recorded using a bi-directional microphone. Surprisingly, we hear an exchange involving a sanitation worker, who jumps off his truck to accuse one of the other female dogs of being “a selfish asshole” when the dog steals a bone from Zeytin even though she was given one as well. He prevents a fight and takes the stolen bone back to Zeytin. Another comes when a father gives his toddler a bit of food to offer to the dogs, assuring the child that the gentle dogs won’t hurt her. There are also cases when people aren’t kind or big-hearted to the dogs, but there is no out-and-out cruelty.article continues after advertisement

Along with a classical, evocative original score by Ali Helnwein to set the stage, Lo deploys billboard-like quotes from ancient philosophers to underscore, or perhaps even help explain, her intent, namely to tell a story about “lived experiences of those whom society has left behind.” 

Cleverly and effectively, the action will pause and quotes from ancient philosophers will appear onscreen. For example, “Dogs and philosophers do the greatest good and get the fewest rewards” (Diogenes, 368 BCE), or “Dogs keep watch over human beings, not to ensure that they do not lose their property, but rather that they do not get robbed of their integrity” (Themistius, 317 CE).

Some might wonder how (and why) a Muslim country established this humane law about street dogs. Regardless, Turkey provides amazing examples that other countries can learn from. While they aren’t directly included in this film, organizations such as Animal Rights Federation in Turkey (which appears in the credits) have run successful humane campaigns. Among them are “one container of water,” which provides water to street dogs and stray cats, and “push the brakes,” which urges people to take responsibility if they injure an animal. The latter is particularly apt; many scenes in this film show dogs, albeit with a certain amount of street smarts, having to cross very busy roadways. And best of all is the kiosk from a company called Pugedon that “trades” pet food for a plastic bottle. Pop the used bottle into a slot, and out comes the kibble for a hungry dog. 

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What I especially appreciated was the way that Lo demonstrated that Zeytin and the other dogs were not defined by their relationships to humans. While they spent time with the boys, we also see them as they “traverse across class, ethnic and gender lines in a way only stray dogs can.” Source: 360 Communications, used with permission

That makes the final scene of the film all that more poignant. It had me weeping, not out of sadness but because the scene itself was so moving, and so cinematically extraordinary. 

As the credit roll starts, in a full-screen shot, we see the lovely Zeytin resting on a patch of ground in what looks like the city’s outskirts. Then an azan, call to prayer, from a nearby mosque begins. At that, Zeytin lifts her head and tilts it towards the sound. She then joins in, howling and howling and howling, for almost two full minutes. Both the azan and the dog’s own soulful song go straight to your heart, as will this exceptional film.article continues after advertisementhttps://c02de4330046fd3ccd2c43ef44fe320d.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html

Stray opens March 5, in select theaters across the country or streaming. See more information and streaming alternatives

References

Notes 

1) I’m pleased to present this guest essay by Claudia Kawczynska, Editor-in-Chief of The Bark

2) Zeytin, fiercely independent, embarks on adventures through the city at night; Nazar, nurturing and protective, easily befriends the humans around her; while Kartal, a shy puppy living on the outskirts of a construction site, finds companions in the security guards who care for her. The disparate lives of Zeytin, Nazar and Kartal intersect when they each form intimate bonds with a group of young Syrians who share the streets with them. Whether they lead us into bustling streets or decrepit ruins, the gaze of these strays acts as a window into the overlooked corners of society: women in loveless marriages, protesters without arms, refugees without sanctuary. STRAY is a critical observation of human civilization through the unfamiliar gaze of dogs and a sensory voyage into new ways of seeing.

Bekoff, Marc. Why It’s Important (and Fun) to Study Free-Running Dogs.

_____. Changing Behavior of India’s Street Dogs During Lockdown

_____. Personality Traits of Companion and Free-Ranging Bali Dogs

_____. Free-Ranging Dogs Assess Relative Group Size by Subtilizing.

_____. Dominance in Free-Ranging Dogs: Age and Social Tolerance. 

Originally published on Psychology Today and republished here with the kind permission of the author, Marc Bekoff, Ph.D.

Author’s Books on Amazon

A Dog’s World: Imagining the Lives of Dogs in a World without Humans

Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do

Unleashing Your Dog: A Field Guide to Giving Your Canine Companion the Best Life Possible

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Marc Bekoff is professor emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He has published 31 books, won many awards for his research on animal behavior, animal emotions, compassionate conservation, and animal protection, has worked closely with Jane Goodall, and is a former Guggenheim Fellow. Marc's latest books are Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do and Unleashing Your Dog: A Field Guide to Giving Your Canine Companion the Best Life Possible (with Jessica Pierce) and he also publishes regularly for Psychology Today. Currently, Marc and Jessica are writing a book about what the world will be like for dogs as and when humans disappear (Dogs Gone Wild: Imagining the Lives of Dogs in a World Without Humans, Princeton University Press, 202?). In 1986 Marc won the Master's age-graded Tour de France. His homepage is marcbekoff.com.