Whatever else you can say about the charming and intimate documentary that follows a “Stray” dog through the streets of Istanbul, it’s a rare piece of positive PR for a Middle Eastern country that never makes the news for something good.
Elizabeth Lo‘s narration-free film points out that Turkey and the city tried to “eradicate” its stray dog population all through the 20th century. International outcry is credited with halting the roundups and mass killings. But the evidence presented by “Stray” shows Turks, and Turkmens and Chechens and anybody else among the masses of locals and immigrants passing through being rarely anything but kind to the 100,000 or so dogs who wander the city, its streets, alleys, squares and parks.
Zeytin is the dog we follow here, a tall, beautiful and self-sufficient mutt who makes her rounds, checking trash bins behind restaurants, sipping from fountains, meeting other dogs and occasionally engaging in the one game in the global pooch-on-pooch pentathlon — “CHASE me!”
By day construction workers and shopkeepers call her by name, scratch her ears and give her a pat or a bone. Sure, every now and then a hose is aimed in her direction. And sitting next to strangers in a park can get a spirited cussing-out by foul-mouthed Chinese tourists. But she is tolerated, has the luxury of standing up and stretching before she leaves a parking space a delivery truck driver needs.
The shots are so tight we can wonder if Lo’s camera isn’t a deterrent from the kicks and yelling much of the world greets strays with.
By night, she curls up with street urchins from Turkmenistan, “glue-sniffers” who love dogs and argue with the construction workers at the site where they sleep. The workers are always chasing them off, yelling for them not to be around during work hours. The dogs? The dogs can stay.
Zeytin’s wanderings, catching up with doppelganger mutt Nazar, checking in on beautiful puppy Kartal and her street dog family, confirm a lot of what Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’s book of some years back, “The Hidden Life of Dogs” pointed out. Dogs love to be around other dogs.
Zeytin only is growled at by dogs who figure “These humans are here to care for me, not you. Keep moving, sister.” Pack mentality and violence shows up in one scene, but the only serious fight is over a huge sheep bone she’s just procured. A strange stray with a bone of his own attacks her to get it until a garbage man intervenes.
“A–h–e! Why won’t you share?”
There’s little conflict here, a little fear that something awful may happen to Zeytin or her fellow street animals. Istanbul’s change in laws made it a crime to “hold,” injure or euthanize a stray. They’re protected by mandate, cuddlier versions of the street cattle of Mumbai or the chickens of Key West.
But “Stray” pulls us into their world, filmed from a dog’s eye level (Human faces are rare, human conversations merely overheard.). These dogs haven’t gone feral, and the humans who interact with them meet them on their terms.
Perhaps the Turks have read the ancient Greeks whose thoughts on dogs Lo inserts as intertitles throughout “Stray” to underscore her larger point.
“Human beings live artificially and hypocritically and would do well to study the dog,” Diogenes said thousands of years ago. If he saw a kindred spirit in canines, strays or pampered purebreds, who are we to disagree?
“Dogs and philosophers do the greatest good and get the fewest rewards.”
MPA rating: Unrated, profanity, smoking, canine se
Credits: Directed by Elizabeth Lo. A Magnolia release.
Running time: 1:12