“Dogs keep watch over human beings, not to ensure that they do not lose their property, but rather that they do not get robbed of their integrity”. Themistius 352.
Zeytin. Nazar. Kartal. These will be our guides for a tour of Istanbul. Elizabeth Lo, in her short 72 minute documentary lets the melting brown eyes of these three strays show us this magnificent city in a way that we could not have experienced it had we chosen more articulate chaperones. They also become a metaphor for the numerous human drifters that inhabit this thriving city. Each vignette is prefaced by wise words from an ancient philosopher. He was obviously an early observer of the ways of strays.
Istanbul is one of the oldest, most populous, and beautiful cities in the world. The bridge between Europe and Asia, east and west, it attracts people from around the world. Zeytin, our chief guide, has seen both its famous buildings and its cruelest dives. Being a stray dog, she is at home wherever she travels. If we are used to North American strays – thin and mangy – we will find it hard to imagine that Zeytin is out in the world on her own. She is a healthy, weighty dog and looks like she just stepped out of Hollywood casting. One observer in passing calls her “the tan beauty”. Many Istanbul workers know her by name and are always happy to give her a pat and maybe some morsels of food. In fact, Zeytin and her friends seem to know where and when to arrive for daily handouts at many locations. Like needy street people, they are free, but also totally vulnerable.
Luckily, laws in Istanbul have changed recently and citizens are not allowed to kill stray dogs. Officials cannot euthanize them. Instead, strays are tagged, spayed or neutered, and returned to their favourite places. It’s not perfect, but it is a start.
These chaperones introduce us to street life in Istanbul. Zeytin and her friends roam day and night. They are not the only lonely inhabitants of this city. We are privy to solitary souls – human strays – some lamenting their lot in life; some living as nomads. Like the stray dogs, they are cold and hungry much of the time. Every day is another struggle to find food and shelter. Like the canine strays, they often meet concerned citizens that are able to help them in their daily wanderings. But most ignore them.
A group of young refugee boys from Syria form a bond with one of Kartal’s puppies and despite having nothing, feel that they can take care of this little girl. Of course, they must steal her first. That goes off without a problem. They name her Sari, and they do care for her as a little member of their band of brothers. Their plucky dedication is touching. It is a reminder that kindness and attachment are not the prerogative of only the rich and housed. It is also a reminder that our cities – so vibrant and beautiful – often have a lonely underbelly that can easily be overlooked.
In this short film, Elizabeth Lo reminds us of the beauty of a great city. Its most lowly inhabitants in their own way contribute to the vitality. If you are a dog lover, this is a film for you. If you are not a dog lover, prepare to have your mind changed. These noble creatures, with ingenuity and persistence in a hard life, will win you over.
Stray is available on VOD on March 5th, 2021.