In Istanbul, stray dogs walk the streets, side-by-side Turkish residents. It hasn’t always been this way. Government programs have tried to eradicate these stray dogs, but pushback from the people has prevented full-blown annihilation. Even today, governmental officials are exploring ways to deal with the dogs. But these roaming canines answer to no one and call the streets home.

Filmed primarily in Istanbul from 2017 to 2019, Stray is the feature debut from Elizabeth Lo. Using only titles to provide context and color commentary, Lo follows three dogs: Zeytin, Nazar, and Kartal, through the Turkish streets. There are more, about a dozen or so, but these three are her guides.

Of the three, Zeytin gets the majority of screen time. She has a gorgeous tan coat, a singsong howl, and conveys purposeful independence. She harbors no ill will toward people or other dogs and seems indifferent to Lo’s camera—but that might be me projecting. Nazar loves humans, as does Kartal. The construction workers Kartal hangs around act as if she is there’s. And considering Kartal is still a puppy, there’s a good chance she might follow them home.

One of Zeytin’s many close-ups in Stray. All photos courtesy Magnolia Pictures.

But no one owns the dogs; they just share moments with them. One father takes his daughter to meet Zeytin, while a garbage man makes sure the dogs share bone scraps. When two dogs get into a fight, everyone stays out of their business. And when the dogs lie down in the middle of a busy sidewalk to take a nap, everyone casually walks around them.

Lo captures it all without interfering. Born in Hong Kong, Lo uses these dogs to access a foreign society. Shot at a dog’s height and featuring a soothing ambient soundtrack, Stray is a relaxing work of observation. The only thing resembling a conflict or social commentary comes when the dogs bed down next to Syrian refugees for the night. When the cops come, they arrest the refugees for sleeping on the street and let the dogs go.

If Lo wanted to, she could have made a bigger to-do of this moment. But that doesn’t seem to be her game. There are plenty of ways to interpret these dogs and their situation, but Stray shrugs them all off. The movie feels more at ease in observing than imposing. There’s resiliency in her subjects and curiosity with her camera. And for 72 minutes, they harmonize really well.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Stray (2020)
Written and directed by Elizabeth Lo
Produced by Shane Boris, Elizabeth Lo
Magnolia Pictures, Not rated, Running time 72 minutes, Opens March 5, 2021 at CU-Boulder International Film Series’ virtual theater.