Since 1909, on the streets of Istanbul a cull had been operated to rid the city of its stray dogs problem, but no matter how many of the beasts were destroyed, more seemed to crop up in their place. Eventually the protests from animal lovers grew too loud and the policy was discontinued, making it illegal to kill the strays and also to keep them in captivity. Now the animals live in something approximating harmony with the human residents, scavenging food from them and sometimes being fed by kindly souls who do not want to see hem starve. Let us follow one of these dogs, named Zeytan, as she goes about her days, the most typical of these creatures, though she has counterparts among the human population...
Documentarian Elizabeth Lo graduated from shorts to a feature with Stray, though really it wasn't a whole lot longer than the material she had been producing before, it was simply lasting a shade over an hour to qualify for feature length status. Initially, it comes across as a nature documentary of sorts, only this is following fauna that cohabit with people, after a fashion, though the conventions of the form applied, mainly because we were invited to take away a lesson about nature and about our place in the world from what we witnessed, or rather, what Lo's camera witnessed. This was almost a one woman show, according to the credits at least, as she more or less did all the filming and editing herself, obviously considering herself a friend to Zeytan.
If there was a flaw here, it's that there were no real surprises, as the dogs she focused on did not behave in a manner that suggested they were any different from any other dogs, or any others which would be in that situation. Most of the time, Zeytan mooches about town, finds stuff to eat or is given it by, say, a binman who has set aside a bone or two, plays with its fellow pooches or occasionally fights with them in brief, violent battles that appear to arise from nowhere that we can perceive, and go away just as quickly. Every so often she will see a and chase cat, or be patted by a fascinated toddler, or encounter a dog that has been lucky and pampered enough to be a pet with a roof over its head, and all these things break up the monotony of days that seem much of a muchness over the course of the two years this took to film.
That said, you do wonder why it took so long when it appears Zeytan's days are all very similar, but that is not factoring in the presence of the people. Lo had a point to make by comparing the strays with the homeless refugees from Syria who also scrape by on the streets, and these unfortunates are just glue-sniffing kids who are in danger of being rounded up by the authorities in a way that the dogs are no longer. They feel an obvious affinity with the hounds, so much so a subplot emerges late on when a rivalry develops between the boys and local construction workers who want to keep a litter of puppies and their parents for themselves. It was clear Lo was using the dogs as a way to get to a truth about the people they mixed with - it was not only refugees we saw, but also citizens from all walks of life and how they reacted to the animals (or sometimes did not react) was intended to be as telling about them as it was for the four-legged denizens who were largely dependent on them, consciously or otherwise. If you were a dog lover, rest assured nothing terrible happened to Zeytan and company. If you were a people lover, eh, you may be more troubled.
[STRAY In Cinemas & On Demand 26 March.]