Review by Sean Boelman
Elizabeth Lo’s documentary Stray isn’t the first film to explore the topic of stray animals on the streets of Istanbul, but this remains an interesting topic to explore. Beautiful in a visual sense and almost there in a narrative one, the film definitely has its heart in the right place even if it doesn’t always accomplish its ambitious goals.
The film follows a stray dog roaming through the streets of Istanbul. The reason why Istanbul is such a frequent setting for films about stray animals is that the city has an anti-euthanasia law against capturing stray animals, allowing there to be thousands of dogs on the streets at any given time.
However, this isn’t some cutesy film about a world in which man and beast live together in harmony. Rather, Lo’s point is to create a parallel between the stray animals of the world and the “stray people” of the world, those who have been abandoned by society and left to fend for themselves.
This is a really interesting message, but it’s also one that is too big for a film of a mere hour and twelve minutes in length. Lo barely scratches the surface of some of the political implications of her scenes, leaving the film in this grey area between a work of social activism and an experiment in verite.
Of course, the film features plenty of endearing moments involving the canine subject. Dog lovers will revel in the opportunity to get to meet this heckin good boy, even if the type of footage we’re seeing here isn’t anything out of the ordinary for animal documentaries. And although Lo does also feature some other Turkish doggos, she makes the wise choice of predominantly following the three main ones.
That said, the more fascinating part of the film are the things that happen in the background. Thanks to some effective editing, we get a bit of a glimpse into the greater cultural context of Istanbul. Some of the things that the dog plays witness to are just as if not more important to the story than the dog’s daily life.
There is no denying that this is a phenomenal documentary to look at. Lo follows the pups through the streets of Istanbul with a camera that is absolutely gorgeous, capturing the beauty of the world and humanity despite the harshness of the environment. And in editing the film, Lo has crafted a narrative that is surprisingly cohesive and compelling.
Stray may not do everything that it should have, but it does a lot more than it could have. There’s definitely an even better movie in here with twenty to thirty more minutes worth of footage.
Stray hits VOD on March 5.