Stray In Istanbul

An unknown number of feral dogs, possibly thousands, wander the streets, alleys, roads and parks of Istanbul, passing the time of day and night, searching for scraps of food, and looking for shelter and companionship. Such strays were once caught and euthanized by the Turkish authorities, but no more. Now they roam freely and multiply, leaving the city with an immense problem.

Elizabeth Lo, a dog lover, aims her camera at these creatures in a soulful documentary, Stray, which will be available on VOD platforms and in select Canadian theaters on March 5.

She lavishes her attention on Zeytin, but never loses sight of two other dogs, Nazar and Kartal. I can’t identify them by breed, but I suppose they’re mongrels. And in terms of color, they’re tan, greyish and black-and-white respectively. I have no idea whether they’re males or females.

Zeytin comes into range in the opening seconds as he or she walks through a grassy field sprinkled with white and purplish flowers and pauses next to a road humming with traffic. Next in view are two strays wandering on a beach and still two other dogs frolicking in a park.

The is a mostly silent film bereft of a narrator, but is animated by the plaintive sounds of a cello within the framework of a classical music score. Dogs bark occasionally, and the humdrum chatter and talk of people is heard. From time to time, quotes from the ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes appear on screen. One reads: “Dogs and philosophers do the greatest good and get the fewest rewards.” Lo is plainly partial to dogs, if not philosophers.

As Zeytin negotiates the city, a cat emerges from the bushes. A man pats Zeytan on the head, and a pedestrian guides a dog past two strays, warning her pampered pet to stay clear. Zeytin, finding a discarded bone, chews on it for sustenance.

Homeless people, most likely Syrian refugees displaced by the current civil war in Syria, are camped out in a construction site. Nazar joins them. The Syrians are soon ordered to leave by a Turkish guard on pain of imprisonment.

Kartal, a puppy, is fed by a man. Amid a political demonstration, two dogs copulate. A policeman fondles Zeytin. And on a congested thoroughfare, a father encourages his toddler-age daughter to touch Zeytin.

In a quiet corner, a woman confides in two friends. “My husband stopped giving me love,” she says.

Zeytin, left, meets another stray dog in Istanbul

Always on the move, Zeytin tears through a black plastic garbage bag with his claws and ferrets out a shank bone as two dogs look on hungrily. Before Zeytin can nibble on it, a garbage collector shouts, “Asshole, why don’t you share.”

Judging by appearances, the strays of Istanbul, though not mistreated, are largely ignored. A few residents show flashes of concern and kindness. A young man cradles and kisses a dog. A Syrian refugee shares a blanket and food with Kartal. Still other city dwellers react negatively. In a parkette, two Chinese woman shoo away a dog in disgust after it defecates near them.

Zeytin has the final word, howling almost in unison with a muezzin calling the Muslim faithful to prayer at sunset.

Empathetic yet distant in tone, Stray is the canine version of Ceyda Torun’s 2016 film, Kedi, which focused on Istanbul’s colony of feral cats.