Elizabeth Lo’s ‘Stray’ quietly trots through a broken world

Image from Stray
Magnolia Pictures/Courtesy

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Grade: 4.0/5.0

For the stray dogs that freely roam Istanbul’s streets, the fount of their respect lies in their legal protection from euthanization of capture. “Stray” organically relays this life — smooth and rough, lazy and rushed, dog and human. But writer-director-cinematographer Elizabeth Lo’s provocations are not about Istanbul’s dogs, but instead, a system that shunts people to the streets and decrepit buildings slated for demolition, then punishes them for sheltering there. 

For those looking for a sweet story of the lethargic dog’s life, look elsewhere; expecting a domestic love affair is a recipe for disappointment. “Stray” calmly follows the dog Zeytin and a cast of fellow canines in Istanbul, who are often interlopers in the human world. Lo, who also edited and produced the film, graciously uncovers the line between respect and toleration, constructing a film concerned with the human condition. In short, this isn’t a sunshine and rainbows dream of the carefree lives of the best four-legged friends out there. 

Apparently drawn from the silent film, “Stray” doesn’t tell, but merely shows, leaving the viewer with a string of images and a few quotes from Greek philosophy to make sense of. This is arthouse through and through — a stray in its own right — and, depending on your outlook, decidedly dogged or downright dull.

Addressed to dog lovers and cinephiles everywhere, “Stray” uses dogs as a proxy to tell sober truths. The experience of the most familiar animals is turned around and flipped about and so is the human world, appearing in discombobulating angles unique to the dogs the camera bobs alongside of. Lo sets her gaze on a group of Syrian refugees who find symbiotic company in Zeytin and crew, both groups carrying a practiced acceptance of rejection. Though, Lo never directly hones in on the political divisions that accompany these parallels. 

The parallels aren’t exact, however, and that’s part of Lo’s point. The dogs roam freely, finding comfort anywhere, like the everyday scratches behind the ears or the nonchalance that lets them sit in traffic like a monarch watching the world part for them. Puppies are picked up by the police, presumably to be sheltered as they mature. The Syrian refugees, mere teenagers, are arrested for curling up on the street. For them, Istanbul offers no shelter or remorse. 

A lengthy documentary is impossible, which Lo — thankfully — recognizes. The story is told from an outsider’s perspective, either as a passerby or as an observer of a passerby in a twice-removed style that’s inherently limited. Only fleeting pieces of the world beyond the dogs are captured, and most of them go by with finite consequence. Snippets of faraway conversations, echoed and muffled, are concrete, but not permanent. The fragments are moving, though hardly more than fragments. Anything the dogs aren’t privy to is outside Lo’s purview. The result is a sensory film that occupies the liminal space between silence and sound.

Other elements, such as the ultra closeups of Zeytin’s face, get old like Fleabag’s (of “Fleabag”) pouts — a slightly trivial oversight, but a flaw nonetheless in an artwork that’s otherwise tightly wrapped. “Stray,” coming in at a petite 72 minutes, tests the limits of passive and observational dogumentary. Lo’s conclusions are concise, arriving without plot and inspirationally explorative. Like the strays, they fade in and out of the city, napping on the beach or on sun-dappled restaurants, waiting to be stumbled upon. They emerge from the screen abruptly, sometimes with a quiet sense of humor, as when a pair of dogs mate at a women’s rally or an obsessive man lectures his partner on who she follows on Instagram.

The most potent shots, coming late, are of dogs trotting through ancient ruins and rural roads and overrunning hillsides. They’re also some of the steadiest and most measured shots. Not only does Lo sensitively push back against alienation, but succinctly captures the essence of respect that dogs and people alike deserve. Dogs share our world, and in “Stray” — and Istanbul — it’s as much theirs as ours. Lo leaves us with a final question: How come they have it better than people?

Dominic Marziali covers film. Contact him at [email protected].