Dogs have been an object of fascination for cinema since its early days (see Thomas Edison’s “Dog Factory,” among others), a phenomenon only intensified by the moving images of the social media age. Despite decades of competition, however, “Stray” stands out for inhabiting the dogs’ point of view. Elizabeth Lo’s gorgeous, absorbing snapshot of several stray dogs on the streets of Istanbul spends most of its concise 72 minutes hovering at the height of its subjects, as the camera hangs alongside them, adopting a mystical and even envious tone to their rough-and-tumble routines. Dog lovers will drool over the lyrical imagery throughout this thoughtful canine love letter, but “Stray” has almost as much to say about the people who come across the homeless creatures at its center.
The most obvious precedent for Lo’s approach is “Kedi,” Ceyda Torun’s 2016 breakout hit about cats roaming the same city streets. However, while Torun fixated on the carefree individualism of the feline spirit, “Stray” doubles down on the wandering nature of man’s best friend when it has nowhere to go, and how that experience merges with the experiences of migrant humans whose wayward journeys aren’t so different.
Before it gets into all that, the movie operates as a kind of neorealist variation on the nature documentary: An opening title card explains that Istanbul has made it illegal to euthanize stray dogs, but that doesn’t make their day-to-day routine all that easy. Assembled out of footage shot across two years, “Stray” tracks a trio of dogs struggling through ambivalent passersby, the travails of dumpster diving, and the occasional frictions with their own kind. While some of these snippets of life hold more appeal than others, the movie settles into a nice groove once it introduces a trio of protagonists: Kartal, stoic mutt who has a lot of local fans; the somewhat more belligerent Zyetin; and Nazar, who associates with a set of young Syrian refugees by the dock.
The roving camerawork takes on a “Slacker”-like quality as it provides a conduit to exploring various corners of Turkish society. Erdogan’s poised for his 2017 reelection, and radio broadcasts capture bits and pieces of a society in constant flux, even as the dogs remain innocent bystanders. Their casual indifference to the complex world around them often culminates in amusing contrasts, as when one pair attempt a mating session in the middle of a march for women’s rights (the inevitable joke about consent from one activist writes itself).
However, “Stray” finds its best self when the imagery takes on the poetic, even haunting quality of a world defined by abandonment. Despite the “Kedi” echoes, the movie sometimes recalls the dystopian aspects of “White God,” the Hungarian thriller about rebellious dogs that also inhabits their point of view. Fortunately, these ones don’t harbor any ill will — but as the animals travel across rickey staircases and empty metro stations, they embody a singular kind of melancholy and isolation. While Ali Helnwein’s euphoric score helps the awe-inspiring mood along, the movie’s just as effective when devoid of artifice, as the bustle of the street life overtakes the frame, and the dogs make their way through an indifferent landscape.
No matter the transfixing nature of these sequences, the movie occasionally overstates its message, with intrusive quotes from Greek philosophers injecting random observations about nature and humanity that can’t compete with the magnet footage. And while the migrant characters provide a compelling addition to the narrative, their story never holds quite as much appeal, and threatens to overextend the material. The excess clarifies why “Kedi” padded out its own running time with chattering humans; devoid of voiceover, the animals can only carry the narrative so far, but the people simply can’t hold the same level of interest.
Fortunately, the dogs run most of the show, and they serve as remarkable centerpieces in a complex visual tapestry loaded with tender closeups that contemplate the consciousness on display. As the dogs venture through narrow alleyways, ancient ruins, and even enjoy a day at the beach, they come across as both adorable and sagacious at once — which makes it all the more heartbreaking when some locals push them away. Such cruelty says more about humans assuming the worst than the dogs, who seem either indifferent to the problems of the modern world or far wiser about it than we are.
“Stray” was scheduled to premiere in the Viewpoints section at the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.