In 1911, the city of Istanbul rounded up over 80,000 stray dogs and dumped them all on an abandoned island. Unlike the plot of Wes Anderson’s Isle Of Dogs that the story inspired, all the animals died a slow and painful death, and the devastating earthquake that followed was viewed by the city as punishment from God for letting it happen – leading to widespread protests and a new law that made it illegal to kill or capture any stray ever again. More than a century later, Istanbul is now home to around 150,000 strays, three of whom find fame in Elizabeth Lo’s remarkable documentary about life on the streets.
If you’re expecting a heart-warming Lady And The Tramp fable, or even something as wholesomely sappy as A Dog’s Purpose, you might be disappointed by Lo’s meditative, almost silent arthouse mutt movie – but give Stray a chance and you’ll discover something far more profound as a cast of four-legged outcasts nose into the bigger problems facing society.
Zeytin is the first hero of the story – a stocky yellow hound with a slight limp who wanders through traffic, roots around dustbins and chases the occasional cat (probably an extra from 2016’s Kedi, about Istanbul’s stray moggies). Zeytin lives a sad hobo life in the middle of the city, silently squinting into the wind like a character from an indie movie as modern life goes on all around her without ever really noticing that she’s there. When she does get spotted by a couple of rich terriers in fancy little coats, she quickly gets shooed away by their owner (“Come away Bella! She’ll kill you!”) leading to more sad looks and more slow limping off into the background.
Later we meet Nazar (smaller, paler, seems to have a bit of a thing for Zeytin after he humps her in the middle of a women’s rights march), and Kartal (a wide-eyed black and white puppy who steals the whole film after successfully nabbing a corner of Zeytin’s blanket), and the three dogs lead Lo’s floating camera around the city at ground level. But although Stray keeps the focus very much on Istanbul’s animal refugees, it also cleverly touches on the human outcasts living the same life.
Finding companionship (and an occasional shared meal) with a group of homeless Syrian kids, Zeytin’s pack start running with the teens who sleep on an abandoned building site and spend their days sniffing glue and begging for food. The boys have escaped the war in Aleppo only to end up on the streets in Turkey living like strays – with Lo picking up snatches of conversation about how they can’t work without permits, and how they can’t get permits without an address.
Just as one pair of tourists look disgusted at Zeytin for sitting too close to their picnic, the rest of Istanbul snubs its nose at the estimated 6,000 to 8,000 humans sleeping rough – with the city’s stray dog problem quickly becoming an all too painful metaphor for the country’s growing refugee crisis. Composer Ali Helnwein’s swelling cello score adds a sad majesty to all the scenes of dog and boy deprivation, but Lo’s subtle film weaves the two strands together so beautifully that it never feels like a lecture – always observing from a distance, lingering just long enough to make a point, letting the real story tell itself in sad puppy-dog eyes and haunting shots of homelessness.
Heartfelt and soulful without reaching for the easy triggers, Stray signals the arrival of a great new arthouse talent in Lo, and turns the lost dogs of Istanbul into real under-class heroes.
- Director: Elizabeth Lo
- Starring: Zeytin, Nazar, Kartal
- Release date: March 26 (video on demand)