“I nuzzle the kind, bark at the greedy, and bite scoundrels.”
Respect and compassion for the animals that we have dubbed “Man’s Best Friend” is what permeates throughout this kind and important documentary called “Stray.”
We are told that, since 1909, Turkish authorities have committed mass killings of street dogs in their quest to annihilate Istanbul’s stray dog populations.
Widespread protests to stop this heinous practice eventually made Turkey into one of the very few countries where it is illegal to euthanize a stray dog.
Elizabeth Lo’s debut feature parallels the human world with the one inhabited by the main dog, Zytin. We also meet her dig pals Nazar and Kartal.
This beautiful tan dog roams through life, prowling the streets. She makes friends with other dogs and has a run-in with a couple of mean ones. She interacts with humans, searches for scraps of food, plays, sleeps, and even has the occasional sex.
There is no narration or scripted voice-over that might manipulate. Director Lo has more serious intentions, that which makes her film even more compelling.
As the stray dogs are ignored by society, so are the Syrian refugees that inhabit parts of Istanbul. The Turkish government has turned their back on the refugee population, leaving many of them homeless and struggling.
In a harrowing moment, the dogs (and the filmmakers) find themselves around a group of street kids, not one of them over the age of fourteen. They sleep rough and sniff glue.
Unlike some of the citizens of Istanbul who interact with the stray dogs and feed them whenever they wander by, the Syrian refugee children are ignored and left to fend for themselves in a literal, and figurative, cold world. To hear one of them ask mater-of-factly, “Will we eat?” moved my soul. For these refugees, the tragic and heartbreaking reality is that a warm meal and a little human compassion cannot be found.
The powerful impact is that the street kids show great compassion to the dogs. They play with them, speak sweetly to them, and give them blankets when it’s cold (even though the kids are cold as well). When the animals are near, these young people smile, a picture of moments of pure joy.
As one of the men who work at the construction site where the kids occasionally sleep says, “they hurt themselves, but I don’t think they would hurt animals.” It is sweet to see these men find a small bit of respect towards the ones whom society ignores.
Elizabeth Lo’s “Stray” is an incredibly stirring film. The director has something profound to say about humanity. It is a film of curiosity. As the dogs curiously wander the streets, the audience is curious to see how the dogs navigate and survive. As we watch these handsome creatures, our eyes begin to become aware of the people that inhabit their world. We hear their conversations and see how they react to the animals. Sometimes sweetly but too often coldly, and occasionally aggressively, uncaringly.
And then we notice how the humans treat one another and the film becomes about humanity. It becomes about all of us.
As the quote from the Pagan Greek philosopher Themistius that Lo uses in her film, “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.”