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Film Review: Stream “Stray” to Meet the Dogs of Istanbul

A scene from Stray, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Stray is an immersive and enigmatic look at Istanbul, captured alongside a few of its legally-protected stray dogs.

In the early morning hours, a man with a handcart walks several cases of bottled water into a café before suddenly stopping short. The camera pulls out to reveal what’s in his way: a dog, asleep beside the tables and chairs. A co-worker rousts the furry trespasser awake and ushers her out with what’s obviously a practiced mixture of frustration and grudging affection.

If Stray began with this sequence, we’d basically understand Turkey’s unique relationship with its sizable population of vagrant dogs and cats. In a concession to convention, however, director-editor-cinematographer Elizabeth Lo briefs the viewers on her film’s setting through a pair of explanatory title cards. After nearly a century of efforts to eradicate wandering animals, protests inspired the nation’s government to officially protect strays. Though a number of the dogs we’ll see throughout Stray’s runtime wear government-issued tags, it has been illegal to capture or kill unclaimed animals since the 90s.

Those explanatory cards follow a quote from Diogenes of Sinope, one that calls on humanity to cast aside its artificial, hypocritical ways and “study the dog.” It’s one of a handful of quotes from antiquity (and one more recent one) that punctuate the film while distracting from its immersive qualities and devaluing its subtle calls for both inter- and intraspecies harmony.

Meet Zeytin

Though it features several dozen dogs, Stray emphasizes just three and mostly focuses on one, Zeytin. The floppy-eared, brown mutt makes for a compelling leading lady. While dog-loving audiences may wince when she trots across a bustling highway or casually steps out of the path of an oncoming train, Zeytin’s aloof sense of cool is almost totally unshakeable. An extended, early close-up recalls nothing less than a Warhol Screen Test in its mix of intensity and off-handedness. We’re given around a minute to puzzle over the meaning of Zeytin’s gaze and ponder the immense sensory world that continually distracts her from our own stare.

Lo not only neglects to directly personify Zeytin and her other subjects through narration, but also mostly resists providing true “dog’s-eye views” of Istanbul. She instead favors camerawork that allows us to move alongside, behind, and among the four-legged throng. Rare medium shots bring us back to the (far-less-interesting) human perspective and occasional interruptions from a non-descript, repetitive score suggest both a more pretentious and more precious film than what Stray mostly turns out to be.

Stray is at its best when it welcomes us to hear the world as Zeytin and her peers do. A vague mechanical and vehicular rumble, occasionally interrupted by conversations from pedestrians and calls for prayer, create an utterly overwhelming soundscape. We come to understand how a dog can move from interest to interest and sensation to sensation; the movie takes on an animalistic rhythm. And then another title card appears, yanking the leash and breaking our concentration once again.

Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

They Still Roam Free

The film’s final title card, a 2003 quote from Orhan Pamuk, reminds us that despite continued, concerted efforts to eradicate them, dogs “still roam free” across Istanbul and all of Turkey. When the film’s scope, then, briefly widens to capture a more diverse collection of subjects (including a French Bulldog of all breeds) and Turkish locales, even this confirmed cat person was moved.

Stray’s enigmatic final sequence nearly reaches those ecstatic heights. Our return to a solitary Zeytin’s side is, unfortunately, interrupted at almost the exact last second, by a totally unnecessary and very obviously human camera movement. It breaks the illusion that we’re living in Zeytin’s world in a way that even the ongoing credits — a literal record of all the humans involved in Stray’s making — cannot. At a brief 72 minutes, it’s tough to argue that Stray overstays its welcome, but it’s the rare film that might be markedly better at just a few seconds shorter.

3 Paws out of 5

Stray is available now to stream on Prime Video.

This film contains scenes of animals in peril and adult situations. Viewer discretion is advised.