'Stray': Film Review | Tribeca 2020

Elizabeth Lo
A howling success.

Elizabeth Lo's first feature-length documentary offers a dog's eye view of Istanbul.

[Note: In the wake of the Tribeca festival's postponement this year, The Hollywood Reporter is reviewing select entries that elected to premiere digitally.]

There are close-ups, and then there are close-ups — frame-filling, heart-stopping glimpses of a soul. In the brief but stirring Stray, those glimpsed souls belong to dogs who live on the streets of a major city. The faces are magnificent, but not in a best-in-show way; they're the weathered (or ultra-young) mugs of characters whose backstories we'll never know, and whose every move and glance suggests volumes.

Comparisons to Kedi are inevitable for Stray. Like that 2017 documentary, Elizabeth Lo's affecting debut explores the urban wildlife of Istanbul. In Kedi, felines come and go, forging deep bonds with humans but never settling down with them. Something similar is afoot with the dogs in Stray: At once solitary and social, they move through the city with a potent sense of independence, but also a keen interest in the people around them. As charged with emotion as Kedi can be, its mood is soothing and hopeful; it's a cinematic valentine. Stray is a very different animal — illuminating, through its central canines' adventures, the economic and political divisions and the cultural hierarchies that define our time.

Lo's artful, intimate doc joins a growing body of indelible nonfiction films, among them the recent Berlin title Gunda, that address the mystery of human-animal relationships and the need to reconsider our assumptions.

By Western standards, Turkey has an unusual attitude toward animals; as intertitles explain, after a century of attempts to eradicate its wild dogs, the country has made a sort of laissez-faire peace with them, outlawing the euthanization of strays. Lo follows them in the midst of rush hour traffic — sometimes literally — as well as romping through parks, loping down nighttime streets, chasing cars, digging through trash and scanning the waterfront with a noirish touch of je ne sais quoi. (As far as I can tell, no felines were harmed in the making of this film, but at least one was chased up a tree.)

The helmer, who handled DP duties as well as editing, laces the variously breathless and contemplative action with quotes from the dog-admiring philosopher Diogenes. She zeros in on two trios, one canine (a couple of big, self-possessed females and a shy piebald puppy), the other human: young male immigrants from Syria. Jamil, Halil and Ali have been living on the streets for a couple of years, peddling small items during the day, sniffing glue, and sleeping in construction-site squats where the dogs sometimes share the blankets with them. When these six are together, they form a ragtag family of motherless children.

The experienced, easygoing Nazar and young, needy Kartal are riveting in their own right, but the movie belongs to the muscular and ever watchful Zeytin. Per Lo's statement in press notes for the film, "Zeytin quickly emerged as the focus of our production because she was one of the rare dogs we followed who did not inadvertently end up following us back." Filming mostly at dog's-eye level, Lo followed Zeytin for six months (keeping track of her and the other free-roaming pups via overnight GPS collars). The camerawork is an extraordinary technical feat as well as profoundly expressive; a couple of Zeytin's close-ups rival those of Falconetti or Garbo, although this nonperformer arguably has more agency.

Heightening the doc's center-shifting perspective are the richly distorted textures of Ali Helnwein's score and the deft sound design by Ernst Karel (Leviathan, Sweetgrass). Working from the daily recordings of local co-producers Ceylan Carhoglu, Zeynep Köprülü and Zeynep Aslanoba, Karel has crafted a postmodern symphony of traffic noises, café conversations (love gone cold, social media miscues), and the relative hush of the streets during sunset prayers.

There are jolts of humor. Participants in a Women's Day demonstration project some of their gender politics onto a pair of dogs getting it on in their midst. Zeytin checks out a tiny dog named Bella who's being walked on a leash while wearing a raincoat. 

But through it all, Stray shines a piercing light on what it means to be an outcast in a teeming metropolis. Though they do find attentive people with whom to pass an hour or two, it's remarkable how often the dogs go unnoted by pedestrians (luckily, drivers heed them). The boys from Aleppo slip through the cracks, too, viewed head-on only when they're being admonished or arrested. The man who kicks them out of a building where they've been squatting does it relatively gently, but he doesn't understand why they're there in the first place. "Go to your house," he tells them.

Through a finely calibrated ebb and flow of insight and emotion, Lo offers a fresh perspective on life in the shadows — the freedom as well as the neglect — building toward an end-credits coda, a song from the heart, that's not to be missed.

Production companies: Molj, Periferi Film, Intuitive Pictures
Director-director of photography-editor: Elizabeth Lo
Producers: Elizabeth Lo, Shane Boris
Executive producer: Ina Fichman
Composer: Ali Helnwein
Sound designer: Ernst Karel
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival online (Viewpoints)
Sales: Dogwoof

71 minutes