Director: Elizabeth Lo

This documentary about dogs begins with a quote that is also its mission statement. ‘Human beings’, Diogenes said in 360BC, ‘live artificially and hypocritically and would do well to study the dog.’ Over a few years Elizabeth Lo did just that and studied stray dogs in Istanbul. She makes no new discoveries about canine behaviour, dogs’ lives now tied inextricably with man, but instead she re-affirms Diogenes’ tenet and reveals how artificially and hypocritically humans live in the present day.

Lo follows Zeytin a female dog that some citizens of the Turkish city believe to be only a couple of years old, but her limping gait makes her look older. She has the liberty of Istanbul, as it is now illegal to kill or even impound the stray dogs that inhabit the city. If she is indeed young, Zeytin is nevertheless streetwise, and knows how to navigate the busy traffic, sometimes sitting down at the edge of a main road trusting that the cars won’t hit her.

The camera is discreet, but it’s impossible not to be aware of its presence as it trails Zeytin’s movements – in both senses of the word – as she looks for food and shelter. Some passers-by stop and stare at the dog, but they must, too, be looking the camera, held or fixed at a dog’s eye-level. People stop and pet her, but it’s unclear whether the camera, and the person holding the camera, imply that Zeytin is harmless and docile.

For a film about dogs, this documentary really comes alive when humans enter the story, and it’s fitting and heartbreaking that they too are stray. A group of boys, immigrants from Syria, have similar lives to the dogs. They seek refuge at night-time and then wander the streets during the day looking for food. On their circuits of the city, the boys join up with the dogs, who become their only friends, dependable and unprejudiced.

The camera catches the occasional glimpses of these homeless boys, but it is somewhat frustrating when it leaves them to follow Zeytin’s path along the streets or the shore of the river. Without the human interest the film is in danger of being as aimless as the dogs’ lives, but that, obviously, is the point. Even though we may try to anthropomorphize Zeytin’s existence, she looks neither happy nor sad, neither missing nor saved: she is just herself.

Running at only 70 minutes, Lo’s film has more bark than bite, but it still remains a fascinating study of those, animal and human, who live on the edges of society. Of course Stray is about those who are lost, but it also celebrates a kind of freedom too.

The BFI London Film Festival runs from 7 to 18 October 2020

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