The new documentary Stray is a tender and vast portrait of the world seen through the eyes of a dog. It offers a view into people and pups pushed to the margins.
Filmed in Istanbul and across Turkey from 2017 to 2019, it follows three dogs—Zeytin, Nazar, and Kartal—as they roam around with seemingly no care in the world. The country is unique; after citizens pushed back against attempts to remove the country's animal population, it is now illegal to euthanize or hold any stray dog captive. This leaves countless dogs to live free and make Istanbul their own.
Stray initially made me think of the 2018 dog-centric documentary Los Reyes, which attempted to pull off a similar concept. It almost entirely focused on the dogs, with occasional conversations happening off-screen in audio form only. That doc reduced the people of the place itself to background noise.
Thankfully, that is not the case in Stray. Instead, director Elizabeth Lo uses the dogs and their view of the world as an entry point to see Istanbul's people. Culture and community are ever-present even as the documentary approaches its peoples' stories subtly.
Stray, Lo's feature-length directorial debut, drops its camera down to the eyes of a dog, often stabilized at the same height as its patrolling pups. Even if it's persistently funny to imagine a person with a camera crawling around with dogs, the move works.
Lo repeatedly interjects quotes that act as bookends to small vignettes, allowing the often meandering film to have more structure when it needs it. That said, the film is mostly about listening and watching to whatever circumstances the dogs come upon.
A group of kids who find themselves having to take shelter in a building set to be torn down is the closest the documentary has to a recurring group of subjects. There is a lot left unknown about them, though the film smartly lets its audience listen to what the kids reveal about themselves. Getting to hear candid conversations about the untenable position they have found themselves in is what offers the film depth.
The fact that the dogs seem disconnected from the stakes of the people they encounter creates an interesting juxtaposition. The dogs' tranquility is possible because of the protections the country has afforded them—the dogs often have more protections than their people.
This understanding is conveyed from a strictly observational viewpoint; the documentary is one of the rare few that does not look to talking heads or cutaway interview subjects to provide context. Everything is learned as if you were there on the street, and the willingness of Lo to sit with these moments for extended periods of time is a refreshing way of framing the experience.
Even as Stray can seem aimless, it has a patient and precise rhythm. It takes its time to reveal the stories of the people who have become outcasts themselves. It leaves you to wonder who the title is referring to: the dogs or the people?