The jury for international films at Hot Docs declared Elizabeth Lo’s Stray “best in show” with the award for Best International Feature. Stray is a worthy choice as the top dog at Hot Docs. The ingenious film follows three dogs—Zeytin, Nazar, and Kartal—as they survive day by day on the streets of Istanbul, snapping up errant garbage, enlivening women’s marches, interrupting traffic, and enriching lives. Lo captures their interactions with fellow strays like Syrian refugees and homeless youths, as well as housebound Turks who care for the dogs. The film cites a recent ruling in Turkey that made it illegal to euthanize or hold captive any stray mutts roaming the streets, but the camera invites a deeper essay on human rights and empathy as it witnesses how the dogs survive each day. This sumptuously shot film is a touching portrait of life on the streets seen from the dogs’ vantage point to convey the challenges and freedoms that come with the nomadic life.
Lo’s compassionate and playful approach marks an auspicious feature directorial debut after several award-winning shorts including Bisonhead (2016), The Disclosure President (2016), Mother’s Day (2017), and Hotel 22 (2015), winner of the CinemaEye Honors Award for Outstanding Achievement in Nonfiction Short Filmmaking. Although Stray is not among the films screening in Hot Docs’ online festival, it’s well worth the wait for Toronto audiences. The film demands the big-screen theatrical experience with its arresting images and its immersive sound design that heightens the senses as the dogs follow their noses, and Lo follows them, through the bustling city. The film invites an obvious comparison to Ceyda Torun’s hit cat movie Kedi, which similarly told the stories of stray animals in Istanbul, but both docs are fine companion pieces whether one prefers felines or canines. Stray, like Kedi, is a provocative essay about how we treat our fellow animals, human and non-human alike.
POV spoke with Elizabeth Lo following her Hot Docs win to discuss Stray, her approach to conveying the dogs’ worldview, and, inevitably, the experience of premiering a film amid COVID-19.
POV: Pat Mullen
EL: Elizabeth Lo
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
POV: Congratulations on the Hot Docs win. It must be bittersweet?
EL: It’s strange. Typically, you have this big world premiere. Our film was supposed to be at Tribeca too, but everything is up in the air. What does a world premiere even mean in this time? Right now, we’re still figuring things out in terms of festivals and strategies.
POV: I found the dogs in Stray wonderful company for quarantine viewing though. How did you “cast” the film, so to speak?
EL: Zeytin is the main character. She definitely stood out to us. The ethos that guided us was that we were not going to pre-produce anything and just be on the streets of Istanbul, see which dogs captivate us, and follow them. I remember walking through this crowded human underground tunnel and two dogs streaked by. We wondered where they were going with such a purpose. We started following them and they led us to the boys who they have a kind of on-and-off relationship with in the film.
Those two dogs were Zeytin and Nasar. Zeytin just had this personality. She was so independent. She refused to do the things that we wanted her to do. The film is not just about our relationship to dogs. It’s about the dogs’ lives on their own terms as well. The fact that she was so radically independent drove the conflict of the film, which is to re-centre the world through a non-human animal’s gaze.
POV: What was the process of shooting the film from the dogs’ level on the streets?
EL: We did tests to figure out how to stay focussed with a dog while tracking it as a single shooter. We shot on the Arri Amira and a Canon C300 with vintage Cooke lenses, and we used a gimbal with the C300 to follow the dogs and to stay in focus. Our crew the so small—it was basically just me and then a co-producer or a production assistant in Turkey—so instead of using remote focussing systems, I just had to figure out what distance to stay with the dogs so that they would always be in focus. I also researched about dog vision ahead of production. Dogs’ vision is not very strong compared to their scent, so even if the film was occasionally blurry or out of focus, it would be true to my perception of the dog’s perception of the world.
POV: What was the process for integrating the human encounters?
EL: In our first scouting trip in Turkey, we explored the concept of a peripheral gaze at the bottom tiers of society. Can they reveal something about what a country or a city is going through? Turkey in 2017 was emerging from the wake of terrorism. They were experiencing an influx of refugees from Syria and seeing the rise of potential authoritarianism, so there were many protests. When we tried to make the film in that way from a top-down approach, it just didn’t feel authentic. When we went back in 2018, we decided we were just going to follow the dogs. The dogs led us to all those scenes in the streets. We partly chose Turkey because we knew that it had a beautiful relationship with dogs, but also because it was going through so many changes as a society. All these scenes did occur through happenstance.
POV: Your film inevitably invites comparison to Kedi since both films portray stray animals in Istanbul. How do you feel about them being discussed as companion pieces?
EL: My original idea for the film was to portray three dogs around the world. It spurred from a really personal place: my childhood dog had died. I loved him so much, and yet at the time of his death, I couldn’t fully grieve for him because I felt pressured to suppress my grief because he was a pet. I was shocked by external politics that valued him as lesser and influenced how my heart reacted. I wanted to see how the status of a being like a dog could change in different cultural contexts to reveal the arbitrary hierarchies that we construct based on differences.
We found out about Turkey and its rich history with stray dogs. Kedi shows that deep relationship, even spiritual relationship, which people in Turkey have with street animals. With the dogs, however, the government has repeatedly tried to eradicate them in an attempt, I think, to westernise and make Istanbul appear “civilised” in a way that New York, Paris, Hong Kong have by getting rid of stay animals. The people in Turkey fought back. They protested for the rights of dogs. Now the dogs are allowed to exist and co-exist, and are taking care of the community instead of existing simply as property or pets. The fact that there are two films about the relationship with stray animals in Turkey, and maybe even more, speaks to how unique that relationship is in terms of how dogs, cats, and even seagulls are integrated there.
POV: The dynamic between the dogs and the humans surprised me, especially that scene with the garbage truck driver where he goes over to one dog that stole two bones from the trash. I thought he was going to pick them up and throw them away.
EL: Exactly. We come from cultures that might do that, so it’s a shock when you realise that he’s trying to equitably share the bones among the dogs. He’s a trash collector, but he takes it upon himself to become involved in the dramas of stray dogs. That way of existing is just so dignified.
The whole city mobilises every morning to feed these animals. There’s no benefit to be gained in a strictly economic sense, but there’s so much to be gained through daily acts of mercy. Kedi also spoke to this idea that caring for the animals enriches the soul of the people of that place and culture. I’m from Hong Kong and I live in America, and I don’t see that in either place, which I find very sad. As an outsider, it was such a privilege to witness this deep relationship within Turkish culture that is missing from mine.
POV: Did you find that the outreach of humanity extended to the homeless human characters as well? I was struck by the scene where the security guards chased the boys out of the stockyard, but didn’t seem to mind if the dogs slept there.
EL: I think this idea that animals are treated better than people is a false impression. The way homeless people are treated in America is terrible, but homeless animals are killed every year simply for not having an owner. The film calls for a flattening of the species’ hierarchy. The problems that these dogs are facing, or that the kids in the film, or other homeless individuals, or women on the streets are facing, exist on a continuum. These struggles against oppression are not separate.
The dogs and the people on the street in the film have very high-risk lives, but the warmth that is extended to the dogs is in some ways extended to the people. At the same time, the status of refugees in Turkey has changed over the last few years just like the status of a stray dog population within a human society can change overnight. There are examples around the world where populations are scapegoated where a society that previously communally embraced people seeking refuge then rejects them.
POV: Do you think there can be strength or freedom in being a stray?
EL: The film quotes the philosopher Diogenes. He modeled his philosophy about life and humanity around stray dogs because they didn’t subscribe to human conventions like marriage and property ownership. They weren’t tethered to these conventions, so he could use dogs to critique the customs that we humans cling to so dearly. They’re on the outside. That’s why the film inhabits their gaze and why their haze is constantly moving in the film: they drop in on conversations and then they leave. They’re not attached to a single entity or property. There is something beautiful about that rejection of being productive and that rejection of capitalism.
POV: Let’s talk about the soundtrack since you mentioned it and it’s such a rich aspect to the film. There’s very little dialogue in Stray, but there’s so much going on in terms of layers of sounds from the city. What was the process for creating that soundscape?
EL: I always had a microphone on my own camera in the field, and so did my co-producers, production assistant, associate producers, and a few other people. They would record conversations that were happening nearby. Being a foreigner in Turkey really helped me get access to conversations that I would normally have been barred from, as did the fact that the film was about dogs. I think it let people’s guards down. It wasn’t until I got back and had the conversations transcribed that I understood any of them! Being a foreigner in Turkey, I almost felt dog-like myself because I couldn’t understand what was being said and had to operate on micro gestures. I loved that experience.
POV: Yes, the film really gives a sense of being an outsider.
EL: I also had the privilege of working with Ernst Karel. I always wanted to work with him because of his sound designs for Leviathan and Sweetgrass, which have so much to do with equalizing non-human sounds with human ones. He created a language where frequencies are higher at times in the film because dogs hear at a higher frequency. You hear sounds that you wouldn’t normally hear. This de-familiarized soundscape attempts to represent how a dog might hear. We tried to develop a sonic language where you hear when dogs are truly paying attention to things around them and when they’re not, especially with the human conversations that they’re tuning out despite the drama that’s around them as people talk about their marriages or political situations. It puts all these human dramas in perspective because it’s grounded in the dog’s lack of understanding.
POV: Did immersing yourself in the dogs’ perspectives change the way you look at dogs?
EL: Being with the stray dogs made me realize how they’re so sensitive. I shot over 160 days of footage over three years from 2017 to 2019, so my experience and my understanding of the dogs was completely enriched by being able to look at all these moments in detail in post. Watching the footage over and over again let me understand the dogs’ motivations when they decided to bark or walk towards me. There were some scenes where I realized that they were protecting me against people who were harassing or bothering me. This film made me realize that dogs are so sensitive to us and to our desires, wants, and needs.
POV: I have to ask about the Canadian connection as well. How did Ina Fichman become attached as executive producer?
EL: My producer Shane Boris and I went to the Camden International Film Festival. We were workshopping the film there and we met Ina at the one-on-one producer pitch meetings. She loved the pitch and Shane and I kept in touch with her over the years. As the film was taking shape, she came on board and we’re lucky to have her and her wisdom guiding the film, especially in these times as we’re trying to release it in such an ever-changing landscape for independent film.
POV: Besides the challenges with release strategy, has COVID affected your relationship with the film?
EL: I have thought about how COVID impacts the stray animals in Istanbul. The animals rely on the scraps from restaurants and other people. I feel confident that the dogs are surviving because they’re resilient, but also because I’ve read articles and have heard from the Turkish team that that people are still going out every day to feed the animals despite the quarantine.
Stray won the Jury Prize for Best International Feature at Hot Docs 2020 and will be released at a future date.