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Thread: STRAY (Elizabeth Lo 2020)

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    Jul 2002
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    STRAY (Elizabeth Lo 2020)



    The world of Zeytin, a stray dog living life on the streets of Istanbul. Maybe not so happy a picture, for a dog.

    Short film director Eleanor Lo has sought in her new documentary feature film Stray to compile a tireless homage to the canine experience, doggedly (pun intended) following Zeytin, a blond she-dog of indeterminate age wandering free in the city of Istanbul, where removing, penning up, or exterminating stray dogs is forbidden by law. Lo's first feature is a tour de force. Lo did a lot of her own cinematography, nimbly tracking her subject with old lenses producing handsome soft closeups, using a tracking device to pick up her subject again the next day after a quick night's sleep. The result is unquestionably a unique depiction of a canine in a busy urban setting, including her wandering with inexplicable ease across the multiple lanes of a freeway.

    Viewers may read different things into Zeytin and, judging by reviews, I am an outlier. This doesn't seem to me at all a happy picture of dog life. Reviewing Stray for Variety Tomris Laffly called it "both the ultimate love letter to dogs and a multifaceted moral inquiry into humanity." That's reading in a lot, but I was immediately reminded by both this review and the film of Lawrence Ferlinghetti's facile but charming 1958 poem "Dog" in Coney Island of the Mind, referring to a canine running wild in San Francisco's North Beach:

    The dog trots freely in the street. . .
    touching and tasting and testing everything
    investigating everything

    Ferlinghetti celebrates the freedom of a dog running loose, "a real live/barking/democratic dog." But the Beat poet's good-humored riff leaves questions unanswered and so do Lo's film and Tomris Laffly's review. The 2016 Kedi, a doc about cats in Istanbul, also allowed to roam free there, is a film that naturally comes to mind here for comparison. The picture of cats in Istanbul is a different one. Felines are more independent creatures than canines and clearly fare better in the situation Istanbul's laws enable.

    The ownerless cats of Istanbul, lazy, playful, grooming themselves, knowing where they can get fed at end of day, take good care of themselves by themselves. They seem to thrive on this situation. They leap and climb around, enjoying the freedom to behave like their jungle ancestors. They laze about, and then when the time comes they know how to play up to humans, especially some restaurants and a self-appointed benefactor, to get the best tidbits they have to offer. Cats are not cooperative, and are not pack animals. They are natural loners; you could almost call them "antisocial" - though individual cats differ a lot, so these characterizations may not fit all of them.

    Dogs are quite the opposite. Our "best friends," they are devoted to their human owners and bond strongly to one person whom they enjoy keeping company with and serving, being trained to obey, sharing with and protecting. (In interviews Lo has acknowledged that Zeytin began protecting her.) They are also pack animals and as cats are antisocial loners, they are social beings, curious about other dogs and other humans. One may ask whether their nature is best served in a situation where they are allowed to roam free. At times, we see the stray dogs moving in a pack. But there is something frenetic about Zeytin's meanderings. There are many moments of play, or theatrical fights, but there is a sense of nervousness, of something missing. I'd say it's bonding with a human master in a secure home that's the felt absence.

    It is interesting to observe Zeytin's meanderings, which Lo follows so determinedly and which tend to seem random and unpredictable. Yes, "the dog trots freely in the street." Her name showing she's known, acknowledging pretty "olive" eyes, Zeytin, like free-roaming Istanbul cats, knows where she can find food and be fed, where she can linger and spend the night. Importantly, the lingering place is a disrupted, semi-abandoned construction zone where there are Syrian refugee youths living on the street, who are accused, though we don't know if it is true, of sniffing glue. Three of them want to adopt her and a smaller black and white dog, barely more than a puppy, which older men claim proprietorship over, who at one point links up with another blond dog of similar appearance. (Strangely, there seem to be two races of dogs here that predominate, the big blond one and the small black and white one. ) Strays link with strays. Sometimes Zeytin finds comfort and love. Not so often. This is not the satisfying life of a dog with loving owners or masters who make her an essential part of their life.

    It is a presumption, however, to assume we know what a dog thinks or feels, if she can be said to think. We now know that what she smells is probably a more important and richer experience to her than what she sees. So let's admit it: this might best have been done in smellovision. But this is also not the study of an animal behaviorist. It's only what Lo could see through her camera following the dog's daily movements, incidentally observing the city's people with the eye of a photojournalist and the ear of a feminist (there is a woman's march - where two dogs copulate - and women at a cafe discussing men). Something was lacking to Lo in her canine observations, since she reports in interviews she returned to Istanbul eighteen months later to capture new images showing Zeytin more with other dogs and not so much alone.

    The film doesn't tell a coherent story like Victor Kossakovsky's extraordinary 2020 documentary of pig maternity Gunda. It is held together by sawing cello sounds by composer/conductor Ali Helnwein. The sound design by Ernst Karel (Leviathan, Sweetgrass) stands on its own. It's also given structure by pauses during which quotations from the dog-admiring ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes appear on the screen. There is a good deal of randomly captured dialogue, which is carefully subtitled in English, some of it funny, some of it rough. We're told stray dogs are protected in Istanbul as cats are, but we hear some obscenities that show dogs aren't so welcome to many Istanbulites. When one curses Zeytin after she has just done her business in plain view, we can understand one reason why. Dog owners clean up after their dogs, but stray dogs don't clean up after themselves.

    The Syrian refugee boys who adopted Zeytin and another dog are rounded up by police, we learn from an on screen text, and the cute puppy with them. Zeytin remains on the street, trotting freely, making do.

    Stray, 72 mins, debuted Tribeca; also Hamptons, DOC NYC, London, Bergen, Montreal, Stockholm, Gijon. Metacritic: 90%. Bay Area virtual cinemas for purchase: Roxie Virtual Cinema, San Francisco; CinemaSF, San Francisco; Rafael@Home, San Rafael; Orinda Theatre, Orinda; Rialto Cinemas, El Cerrito, Elmwood & Sebastopol Magnolia release in theaters and on demand Mar. 5, 2021.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 03-04-2021 at 03:14 PM.


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