Review: In Istanbul, Stray Follows the Dogs Living on City Streets—and in Citizens’ Hearts

A few years ago, Ceyda Torun’s Kedi glimpsed the hard-scrabble lives of Istanbul’s feral cat population; the film followed the city’s feline citizens about their daily lives as they raised kittens, fought over food and territory and generally carved out lives for themselves as Turkey’s largest city bustled around them. Now, Elizabeth Lo’s mesmerizing Stray delivers the nearly dialogue-free meditation on the same city’s stray dog population we didn’t know we needed. At barely over an hour long, Stray is for everyone who already considers themselves a dog-lover and anyone who just needs a little convincing to become one. Filmed over the course of a few years, Lo quietly builds a recognizable narrative by following a few charismatic pups, all expressive eyes and curious head tilts.

Image courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Our main point of entry into the lives of Istanbul’s stray dogs is a mutt named Zeytin, a beautiful old girl who wanders the city as if she owns it. With cameras at dog-eye level, Lo (who is credited as writer, director, producer and cinematographer) manages to simply follow along wherever Zeytin goes, from crossing busy highways without any consideration of traffic (the cars stop for her, naturally) to nuzzling through garbage dumpsters outside the city’s nightclubs, searching for something delicious to snack on. Plenty of locals know Zeytin, from the construction team she frequently visits—a group of men also raising a new litter of stray puppies—to the teenage Syrian refugees who share their food with her and others in her pack.

Stray dogs are a matter of daily life in Istanbul, a city so overwhelmed by the canines that the citizenry revolted against the government’s mass euthanizations, ultimately making it illegal to kill them at all. Though the government continues to try to run the dogs out of the city (many can be seen with a government tag on one ear), they are so ingrained in the very fabric of society that most who encounter them seem to barely notice they’re there. Most of the time, Zeytin finds friends wherever she decides to stop and rest, including a toddler who giggles with glee as she tentatively approaches the dog, and the police officer who offers a warm pet on the head between official duties. There’s the occasional moment of aggression as street packs come into conflict with each other, but there’s always someone close by to help the pup out of a sticky situation.

With the dogs at the center of Stray, Lo is understandably less concerned with any of the human lives being lived around them. That said, she beautifully integrates the various moments that Zeytin and others encounter humans into the soundscape of the film, their conversations coming and going as the dogs pass by, or snippets of disconnected conversation lighting into the narrative as long as a dog is within earshot. These moments, combined with a few later scenes where the construction team and the Syrian refugees cross paths over that litter of puppies, offer just enough insight into the human world in which the dogs exist to help us understand how integrated they are into everyday life.

Ultimately, Lo strikes a sort of balance between the first-person (first-dog?) vantage point that brings us inside their world and a narrative that zooms out enough to acknowledge that these sweet pups don’t exist in a silo, that their livelihood depends on the humanity around them even as it enhances it. This layer of perspective adds much to appreciate in a film that is just as easy to enjoy for its endearing simplicities.

Stray is now playing in select theaters, including in-person and virtually at Music Box Theatre. Please follow all CDC, Health Department and venue guidelines if attending indoor screenings.

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Lisa Trifone
Lisa Trifone