Cats: The humans give me food, shelter, and love. I must be god.
Dogs: The humans give me food, shelter, and love. They must be god.
That’s one of the main differences between Stray and 2016’s feline-focused Kedi, to which it will be inevitably compared. Both documentaries follow their respective stray animals through the streets of Istanbul, looking at their unique places in the Turkish life.
Both feline and canine strays are common on the streets of Istanbul, but the dogs occupy a more precarious position (the cats get the attention and affection they feel they deserve). Our main companion is Zeytin, a relatively large, tan sweetheart who will throw down when she feels the need to. It’s through her experiences that we see others who are the periphery of life in Istanbul. Zeytin’s pack includes a group of young Syrian refugees struggling on the streets, and their lives intersect in a number of ways. Zeytin and the boys — and they are boys — live day to day, not quite sure when or where the next meal will arrive. Will a friendly butcher toss a bone into the street? Will enough people buy the cigarettes and tissue packs so that the hungry boys can eat today? Just as Zeytin passes little dogs dolled up in raincoats, the refugees pass those who can eat at cafes and who know exactly where they’ll sleep that night — indoors and in a bed.
The connection between the boys and Zeytin is the movie’s undercurrent, and director Elizabeth Lo is wise not to hammer the point home. When she’s out and about, Zeytin gets complimented on how pretty she is and how strong she looks and picks up a few ear skritches along the way. When the boys are about their lives, they get no such consideration. They are looked on with suspicion and distain and often shooed away. No one wants to cuddle teenage refugees. No one tells them they are good boys.
Lo makes her feature film debut with Stray, and her background in documentary shorts serves her well. The movie has no unnecessary shots, no moments that drag. Even watching Zeytin sleeping in an alley gives the audience a chance to hear what she hears, just out of the shot. The audience gets to eavesdrop because no one pays attention to a dog. The same thing happens when we hear news stories and protests addressing Turkish political issues; they’re there, but they’re not the focus. They’re background noise.
Stray is engaging enough to watch even when Zeytin is just bumming around the city (though she does have an unnerving habit of plonking down in the middle of busy streets in a high-speed version of my dog plonking down in the exact spot that is most likely to lead to me tripping over him and killing us both). But this isn’t just a “aawwwwwww look at the good girl!” film. Zeytin is our guide dog into the streets of Istanbul — and the humans who live there.