Documentary filmmaker Elizabeth Lo’s first full-length feature is a masterpiece.
- The relationships that stray dogs form with local communicates provide important information about dog-human interactions.
- A new documentary shows that stereotypes about free-ranging dogs being aggressive and a nuisance are misleading and harmful.
- It has been illegal to euthanize or capture any stray dog in Turkey since 2004.
- Turkey’s model provides an alternative, more compassionate way of coexisting with a species that has evolved to live alongside us.
In Istanbul the free-ranging canids have “a rich social calendar, as the dogs trot to meetings with fishers on the Galata Bridge, lunches with refuse collectors on the Istiklal Caddesi, brisk liaisons with male dogs and long nights sleeping on construction sites with Jamil, Halil and Aliof, three refugees from Aleppo.” —Richard Goodwin
Source: Elizabeth Lo, used with permission. A few weeks ago, I posted a guest essay by Claudia Kawczynska, Editor-in-Chief of The Bark, called “‘Stray’: The Fascinating Lives of Free-Ranging Turkish Dogs.” After watching it a number of times, seeing that it made international headlines, and having a number of people ask me questions about it I couldn’t answer,
I reached out to filmmaker Elizabeth Lo and am pleased she could take the time to tell us more about Stray, her “radical new dogumentary” that takes place in and around Turkey’s capital city of Istanbul.1,2
I also was reminded of Elizabeth’s wonderful documentary a few days ago when I was watching a bicycle race called The Tour of Turkey, and the commentators made some positive comments about the dogs who were running free along the route of one of the races. Istanbul’s free-ranging dogs, along with others in various locations, actually do pretty well, and many also do quite well when we’re not around.
Here’s what Elizabeth had to say about her landmark film.
Why did you make Stray?
The impetus for Stray is personal. When my childhood dog died, I felt a quiet need to suppress my grief at his passing. I was shocked that something as personal as how my heart responds to the death of a loved one could be shaped by an external politics that defined him or “it” as “valueless.” As my grief evolved, I also saw how our moral conceptions of who or how much one matters can be in constant flux. This transformative moment is what propels Stray’s exploration into value, hierarchy, and sentience.
Elizabeth Lo filming Istanbul’s stray dogs.Source: Elizabeth Lo, used with permission.In 2017, I traveled to Turkey, a country whose history and relationship with strays is unique in the world. Turkish authorities have tried to annihilate stray dogs since 1909, leading to mass killings of Istanbul’s street dogs for the last century. But widespread protests against these killings transformed Turkey into one of the only countries where it is now illegal to euthanize or hold captive any stray dog.
In 2017, I traveled to Turkey, a country whose history and relationship with strays is unique in the world. Turkish authorities have tried to annihilate stray dogs since 1909, leading to mass killings of Istanbul’s street dogs for the last century. But widespread protests against these killings transformed Turkey into one of the only countries where it is now illegal to euthanize or hold captive any stray dog.
To me, every free-roaming dog today is an emblem of resistance—living manifestations of compassion in the face of intolerance. I wanted to document what life was like for these dogs and explore what seeing the world through their eyes would reveal.
How does your film relate to your background and general areas of interest?
Stray will be my debut feature-length documentary. I see it as a culmination of the themes that all of my work thus far has explored: the lives of those surviving and persisting despite the global forces of capitalism, homogenization, and empire. I have directed several short films that have explored variations of these themes through different vehicles, including Hotel 22 (2015), Bisonhead (2016), and Mother’s Day (2017). Whether these films are about homeless people sleeping on public buses in Silicon Valley; a Native American family trying to assert their treaty hunting rights in a land that prohibits it; or children traveling long distances to visit their incarcerated parents—all of these films have probed what it means to live under the weight of oppressive hierarchies. But more importantly, they examine the ways in which beings persist and survive even as they’re relegated to the peripheries of society.
For me, Stray is the most extreme and challenging iteration of my enduring drive to tell stories that spring from these cracks in society. My long-term goal as a filmmaker is to continually push the boundaries of the cinematic medium in order to explore and challenge unequal states of personhood—to expand viewers’ circles of moral and perceptual consideration beyond their own class, culture, and species through film. This cinematic journey into the lives of stray dogs is an exploration into the value of sentient beings who lie outside of our humanity—but more importantly, it provides a window into understanding the systems and structures upon which human society defines itself.
Who is your intended audience?
I want the film to be seen as widely as possible—not only for those already predisposed to loving dogs.
What are some of the topics that are woven into your film, and what are some of your major messages?
The modernized, industrialized world has deemed stray dogs to be without value, but our film is going to practice what Diogenes, the ancient Greek philosopher who founded Cynicism, believed: Diogenes saw that stray dogs—penniless and honest—adhered closer to our supposed value systems than humans did and that by observing them and how they see the world, we might begin to learn about ourselves. Our aim is to take this Greek philosophical precedent and apply it to contemporary Turkey, the land where this philosophy originated, and see what we learn by following dogs and their encounters with people during a time of national turmoil.
The goal of this documentary is to visually and aurally re-imagine life as it exists for those whom the world has deemed unimportant—both human and nonhuman—and to transform our notions of who and what has value by cinematically enacting the ancient practice of watching dogs… and observing what they see in us.
How does your film differ from others that are concerned with some of the same general topics?
I think inhabiting the dog’s eye level and very literally capturing the world from their height is what distinguishes this film from other films about dogs. I don’t know what impact this has on audiences, but I believe this defamiliarized gaze will offer audiences a chance to see the world in a different light.
Is there anything else you’d like to tell readers?
I think in the West, we tend to think of countries with large stray dog populations as being somehow inhumane or not caring for their animals—but over the course of filming in Turkey and observing their groundbreaking model of successfully and safely integrating stray dogs into the fabric of Istanbul—I’ve begun to think that the opposite is true: that Turkey’s legal model protecting the rights of dogs to roam freely provides an alternative, more compassionate way of coexisting with a species that has always evolved to live on our peripheries.
1) 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.
2) For more information Elizabeth and ‘Stray’ see [email protected] and instagram @straydocfilm.
Bekoff, Marc. Why It’s Important (and Fun) to Study Free-Running Dogs.
Godwin, Richard. ‘What appointments did these dogs have to keep?’: long lunches and brief liaisons in a radical new documentary. The Guardian, March 23, 2021.
Pierce, Jessica and Marc Bekoff. A Dog’s World: Imagining the Lives of Dogs in a World Without Humans. Princeton University Press, 2021.
Kitchenham, Kate. (Editor). Streuner Hunde. Kosmos, 2020. (A book of essays about free-ranging dogs in many different locations around the world.)
Author’s Books on Amazon
Stray Dogs Movie Breaks New Ground
Most peoples’ perception of countries that allow dogs to wander wherever they want without any human supervision or ownership is that they are inhumane. Elizabeth Lo’s take on this is probably at odds with how most people think. Having made this stray dogs movie documentary about Istanbul’s street dogs she has begun to believe the opposite is true. Turkey after all has laws in place that protect dogs’ rights including a right to roam freely.
Have you seen this stray dogs movie and having seen it do you agree with Elizabeth Lo’s take?