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It has long been said that we really don’t deserve dogs. Their loyalty, their love, their undivided attention. And considering humanity’s cruel and atrocious track record in how we treat man’s best friend, there really is a lot of weight to this argument. We breed them, beat them, sell them on the internet and even maim them for sadistic fun or greed. Dogs (and animals in general for that matter) are the best of the world and, while falling victim to the biggest scum on this earth, they can also bring out the best of us, and in Elizabeth Lo’s utterly captivating documentary Stray, we have a moving testament to the power of dogs in the face of life’s harshness. As well as one of the most emotionally investing documentaries of the year.
Just like Ceyda Torun’s Kedi did with cats, Lo’s Stray shows us the joy, daily hardships and indeed horror of life from the vantage point of the street dogs of Istanbul. Since thankfully ending the many years of street dog abuses and butchery, Istanbul’s society has become closer entwined with the dogs that populate the streets and this film captures the difficult lives they live on a daily basis, as well as casting a focus on human society in the most insightful possible way. Filmed across 2 years, Lo’s film is beautifully (and lyrically) shot, compellingly constructed and, as we follow the lives of three adorable strays in particular – Zeytin, Nazar and Kartal – of different personalities, we find ourselves embarking on a journey of freedom, injustice, alarm, discovery and so many varying feelings.
Lo herself has said just how deeply involving the experience was and it reflects in her work, which is a resoundingly heartfelt piece of filmmaking in front of and behind the camera. One scene in particular will stay with me forevermore and Lo’s film really raises important debates about the morals and ethics of documentary filmmaking, and Stray is never less than a beacon compassion, and a story that contains so many harrowing realities but also some select and essential moments of warmth and tranquility, as the divisions of mankind are captured from the most unjudgmental eyes possible. Be they gender, religion or personality differences, it is all captured in a number of immaculately shot moments. This range creates countless incredible images that are so breathtaking you forget that this is all real, from dogs defiantly stood in front of lived in and worn out structures, to the Istanbul cityscape being reflected in their tired eyes as they bathe in the sun. As Al Helnwein‘s heartfelt score brings even more beauty and impact to these sights. Dog lovers will be reminded once again exactly why they are living the right life but this philosophical and largely word-free film will illuminate all who view it.
Stray is such a powerful watch about the actualities of street life for people and dogs alike, as the film not only shows street dog scuffles and run-ins with a variety of people of differing feelings towards them, but comes to focus also on a young group of homeless Syrian teenagers, who connect with the stray dogs, as they too simply survive day to day and are trapped in some of the same cycles of life. There are some unforgettable scenes involving substance abuse and the unfairness that comes with having no distinct place to call home but Lo’s film never forgets the little joys (which are so important in the slog that is living) and how kindness can keep us going. Whether in the shape of refuse collectors with a heart, a hug from a kid or a free meal from construction workers.
Stray is a poem anatomising modern society and ingrained cultures, but most of all Lo’s remarkable painstaking accomplishment sits proudly as a tribute to and celebration of the unmatched strength, individuality and unbridled heart of dogs.
Stray releases in the UK on 26th March.
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