VOD film review: Stray
James R | On 27, Mar 2021
Director: Elizabeth Lo
Cast: Zeytin, Nazar, Kartal
Where to watch Stray online in the UK: BFI Player (subscription) / BFI Player / Curzon Home Cinema / Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Virgin Movies / Rakuten TV / Google Play / Sky Store / Dogwoof On Demand
“Human beings live artificially and hypocritically and would do well to study the dog.” That quote from Diogenes opens Stray, a wonderful documentary from Elizabeth Lo that takes us through the streets of Istanbul – at dog’s eye level. While the premise might smack of anthropomorphism, Stray succeeds precisely because it does what Diogenes suggests: it resists the urge to add in narration or dub over voices, letting the dogs’ lives unfold on their own terms.
Filming without introducing or disrupting these quotidian canine lives, Lo immerses us in the streets of the Turkish capital with a lyrical, poetic eye. It’s like entering a different world entirely, as we follow the independent Zeytin, the protective Nazar, and the shy Kartal – three strays who wander the streets while passing by human drama that drifts in and out of earshot. From protests to loveless relationships, all human life is here and entirely inconsequential; even when Zeytin falls in with a group of teenaged refugees seeking sanctuary, she doesn’t become their pet or belonging, merely exists alongside them in that same limbo of not belonging.
We learn, eventually, about how the government tried to eradicate its population of stray dogs, and there’s something moving about seeing these marginalised residents simply trying to survive, always on the lookout for food and shelter. There’s a powerful message about the way we treat others in there, but it’s wrapped up in a beautiful four-legged tale that works just as well as a love letter to animals, getting up close to let us study their facial expressions and reactions with all the captivating immediacy of an Instagram story but with added emotional impact.
The result is a moving companion piece to the cat-centric Kedi, and an absorbing portrait of a city and its people from a unique, profound perspective. “Dogs keep watch over human beings, not to ensure that they do not lose their property, but rather that they do not get robbed of their integrity” says a quote from Themistus halfway through. We could all do with more dogs watching us through life.
Stray is available now on BFI Player, as part of a £4.99 monthly subscription.