Life as They Know It
By Katherine Connell

Dir. Elizabeth Lo, U.S., Magnolia Pictures

Of the many striking frames in Elizabeth Lo’s documentary about Istanbul’s street dogs, Stray, an extreme close-up of a quivering paw bathed in warm afternoon light is particularly inviting of the viewer's contemplation. We are asked to consider, in sharp focus, the grooves and coarse surfaces of a pad as traveled as the street dog to which it belongs: Zeytin, a mutt introduced in the middle of her attempt to cross a highway abuzz with the speed and sounds of high traffic. Zeytin’s success passing through this acutely dangerous moment characterizes her extraordinarily sharp survival instincts while capturing the equally miraculous and ordinary luck of everyday living.

The ninefold survival of the lithe, graceful cat is more frequently poetized onscreen. Istanbul’s copious street cats were previously captured in Ceyda Torun’s popular 2016 documentary Kedi, which mirrors the movements of its unflappable feline subjects via smooth, curvilinear camerawork. Interviews with locals who regularly interact with these cats contextualize the textures they lend to the city, briefly introducing the obstacles (gentrification, development) that could threaten their survival. Dogs appear infrequently in Kedi, which is surprising considering that Lo’s documentary centers their equal ubiquity in Istanbul—the result of recent laws that have banned their state-sanctioned euthanization. Likewise, cats only appear twice in Stray, as quick flashes of fur that a dog gleefully chases out of frame, hinging both films into an informal diptych.

Despite their linkage, Stray departs from Kedi’s tone and structure. Kedi is a largely optimistic ode to interspecies interaction that dips too easily into the kind of swelling affirmations of weepy viral videos. The treatment of cats as rough and tumble flaneurs strolling to the cadences of a whimsical score defangs some of Kedi’s more profound insights. Stray operates from an awareness that its premise sets up similar expectations. Taking cues from John Berger’s formative piece “Why Look at Animals,” Lo’s film leans into the expressive vulnerability of dogs while exhibiting a wariness of the tendency to exploit their cuteness, anthropomorphize their behavior, or reduce them to symbols. The camerawork, too, is grittier and more doglike, with the film’s shaky rhythms matching the trot of its eponymous subjects through urban areas.

The result is an essayistic film that attempts to emulate a dog’s point-of-view while conceding the ultimate unknowability of this perspective. By forgoing more formal, contemplative interviews with the people in Istanbul who interact with these dogs, Stray lets Zeytin—and her canine cohort—lead the narrative quite literally. As the dogs pass through public spaces, viewers hear snippets of human conversations within earshot: couples on the verge of breakup, radio newscasts about Erdogan’s re-election campaign, groups of men exchanging troubling political speculations about the rise of Turkey’s Nationalist Movement Party, the chanting of marching protesters for women’s equality. Sometimes these humans react to the dogs directly, expressing irritation, affection, disgust, concern, and—in one case—a child’s wonder. Most frequently, the dogs meet up with a group of young Syrian boys. They wander the city together, resting and sheltering at an empty construction site, which proves to be temporary respite when tensions escalate with a group of security guards who have their own relationship with these street dogs, especially a new litter of puppies. Because they feed the litter, the guards assume pseudo-ownership. The boys desperately want to care for one of these dogs and, taking the advice of a fence-sitting guard, end up “stealing” one from the site. This newfound companionship is deeply tender but quickly severed by offscreen arrests that cloud the ending of the film in layers of state violence. The minutes that follow track Zeytin as she continues to traverse the city, coming into contact with other dogs and sleeping alone. The horrific is eclipsed by the banal, a tension that Stray continually negotiates.

Within its cinematic interest in capturing animality, Stray makes room for the human. The film accentuates certain parallels between the vulnerable situation of this group of boys and the stray dogs it pictures, but thankfully doesn’t draw this comparison too neatly. In a particularly poignant encounter, the boys meet a man who shares their experiences: “You are on your own,” he tells them. “Nothing happens to men like us because we live from day to day.” Just as the boys’ devastating aloneness is made clear, their relationship with the dogs reflects a profound intimacy. The theorist Donna Haraway’s ideas about human-nonhuman kinship are implicit in the relationship between the boys and the dogs: a mutual clinging that refuses the structures of domestic pet keeping. More explicitly though, the film invokes the observations of the ancient Greek cynic Diogenes, interspersed as intertitles. These citations work beyond imbuing the film with a literary gravitas: Diogenes’s worldview encourages viewers to follow the example of the street dog in pushing back at the values of “conventional society.”

Nevertheless, the film doesn’t prescribe social pessimism. Scenes of joy drive the film toward a subversive hopefulness, most memorably in a sequence where the boys dance while holding hands—Zeytin included on her hind legs—in a spontaneous formation that recalls Matisse’s ecstatic circle. There’s a metaphor in Stray about collective care, but Lo’s documentary finds its strength in a refusal to tidily shape it for the catharsis of her audience. Instead, Stray invites us to wonder about the ambiguities of interspecies survival and freedom in the context of nationalism, war, and the policing of public space. Stray forms its dénouement through a montage of dogs, including Zeytin, playing near a rocky beach. While Lo displays an intertitle taken from the writer Orhan Pamuk—“the state has launched campaign after campaign to drive dogs from the street but still they roam free”—this “freedom” is unsettled by the glint of Zeytin’s newly minted gold ear tag. The film, therefore, urgently reminds viewers of our responsibilities without disingenuously providing us with an immediate, digestible action plan. One of the final shots shows a wet Zeytin sleeping on a well paved street. She wakes up, rises from the ground, and leaves behind the damp imprint of her body. It’s a relatively unexciting—even unattractive—image. Still, the camera homes in on this watery impression to suggest the depths that exist within the fleeting, forgotten, or unnoticed.