Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Film Review by Jim Slotek , founder of online digital film site:   

Dogs played their part in Louis de Bernières’ 2004 novel Birds Without Wings – set in a deceptively peaceable Turkish village of Muslims, Armenian and Greek Christians just before WWI.

Though they are forbidden by their religion to adopt the village’s stray dogs as pets (cats are okay), the Muslim characters are depicted as surprisingly affectionate to the four-legged street canines and many happily feed them. 

That book was brought to my mind often by Elizabeth Lo’s acclaimed, narration-less documentary Stray, which follows a street dog named Zeytin on her daily rounds of Istanbul. The stereotypical expectation for her, or any other stray dog on Earth, is a day of abuse. (“Like a dog” was a favourite expression of contempt of the last U.S. President). It follows on the heels of some other, very good docs on street dogs, including Pariah Dog (set in Kolkata) and Rescuing Rex.

But a day in the life of Zeytin is, for the most part, an agreeable experience that doubles as a dog’s-eye-view of humans.

In a day in which she covers quite a bit of ground – from Taksim Square to the Blue Mosque district and some darker corners – people call her by name, as if the city itself were her home, and its citizens her humans. She is fed scraps wherever she goes, a shank of meat from a garbage truck, some leftover Kokoreç (a sheep intestine based snack) from a street vendor.

Some even talk about taking her home with them (not exactly a village, cosmopolitan Istanbul is seen to have some dog owners – who interestingly are the only people seen recoiling from the strays, lest their beloved pets be attacked or attract fleas).

Zeytin is certainly a lovable dog with a sweet, playful disposition (though her days seem to inevitably involve at least one scrap with another pooch). She’s a mix of God knows how many breeds, but certainly terrier and maybe some kind of retriever.

Her four-legged best friend Nazar is similarly sized but not as, ahem, fetching. And their orbit is eventually joined by an adorable puppy named Kartal, who is, for a time, kidnapped by Syrian refugee street kids who instinctively feel their lives would be better if they had a dog to care for.

The refugee children and teens are a key intersection point between Zeytin’s world and that of humans. Without identities or a future, they fall into glue sniffing and begging. Still Zeytin finds them perfect to cuddle with at night.

Lo’s depiction of her wanderings (aided with a dog-cam and GPS) takes us seamlessly through the busy activities of Istanbul. There’s an anti-government protest at some point in Taksim Square, the street kids who are practically a human analog for the stray dogs and reflect conflict hundreds of miles away, random conversations within earshot.

Stray puts to rest the notion of “feral” dogs, that without human owners would revert to wolves. Zeytin is unmistakably still a dog, craving social interaction with others of her species and with the humans who’ve bonded with her kind for 25,000 years.

Indeed, the movie is peppered by quotes from ancient dog-lover Diogenes, circa 400 B.C.E., like, “Human beings live artificially and hypocritically and would do well to study the dog,”

It is, in the end, a very moving film.

Stray. Directed by Elizabeth Lo. Starring Zeytin, Nazar and Kartal. Stray is available to rent March 5 on the Apple TV app/iTunes and other VOD platforms. Or to rent on virtual cinema: VIFF Connect (March 5 in BC) and Hot Docs at Home (March 11 across Canada).