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STRAY (2020) review

March 15, 2021


written by: Deborah Lo
produced by: Deborah Lo
directed by: Deborah Lo
rated: not rated
runtime: 72 min..
U. S. release date: March 5, 2021 (Music Box Theatre & Siskel Film Center; also available on YouTube, Google Play, VUDU & Amazon Prime)


“If dogs run free, then why not we/Across the swooping plain?” is how Bob Dylan opens his poetic beat jazz tune from “New Morning” his album from 1970 and that line surfaced from my subconscious while watching “Stray”. It’s a documentary revolving around just that: dogs that run free. Just how free and how humans respond to such freedom is touched on throughout the course of the immersive film. Even if you’re not a “dog person”, there is something to be gleaned here on an anthropological level, something to be said about homo sapiens.

The other observation was how stray animals are indigenous to certain regions on Earth and it seems Eastern Europe seems to be a prominent location when the focus is on such a subject. The setting for “Stray” is as distinctive a character as the dogs that roam the alleys, streets and highways.



In 2016, there was “Kedi” a documentary from Ceyda Torun that prowled the streets of Istanbul through the eyes of its stray felines. Dogs have their day (days actually, and nights) in “Stray”, an impressively shot doc from Deborah Lo that follows a selection of stray dogs as they too navigate the streets of Istanbul. As you likely know, cats and dogs are quite different. While “Kedi” shed light on the individualistic carefree nature of cats, “Stray” looks at the wandering nature of dogs, how in their playful or anxious state they long for connection, despite the mostly harsh world around them.

So, what’s going on in Istanbul that there are so many stray cats and dogs? Are they runaways or did their owners just give up on them? That’s not really touched on here. Lo does display numerous texts on the screen, one of them informs viewers that there was a time when Turkey had a policy of killing stray dogs on the spot. It has since been abolished and is now a crime to euthanize or take captive a stray dog, but there is still a lingering question of who needs protecting, the humans or the dogs.

The director, who also serves as her own writer, editor, and cinematographer for “Stray”, also includes an assortment of quotes from Greek philosopher, Diogenes. It’s a purposeful inclusion since he was known for being a cynic, which is not associated with the typical definition of the word, but rather the Greek derivation kynikos, which means “dog-like”. Therefore, Diogenes was known as the dog-like philosopher. What does this mean exactly? Well, he believed that simply by studying how dogs live, humans beings can find a greater contentment in life and life less artificially.

There’s certainly some truth to that and although I’ve often been envious of my dog’s life – think about it: they can walk around naked and relieve themselves wherever they see fit, and basically eat just about anything – I disagree with his line of thought that dog’s live a life free of anxiety. Clearly, Diogenes has never met my dog.



Incorporating quotes from Diogenes accentuates a contemplative lens that Lo is going for here. Shot over a span of two years, she introduces viewers to three specific dogs and as the cameras closely follow them, often getting up close and into their personal space, just like dogs often do with humans.

Zyetin is a sweet and stalwart mutt, who belligerently weaves her way through the legs of passersby or around moving vehicles that may or may not see her. We see her soulful eyes and longing face though and it dawns on us that Lo is not just showcasing her subject’s personality, but also challenging the way in which her audience views dogs. Zyetin meets Nazar, a smaller dog who becomes her running pal and then there’s the black-and-white Kartal, who seems to prefer to just sit and observe or simply snooze.

The safety and concern for these dogs certainly comes to mind while watching “Stray”, although I detected a degree of envy as well, but then again I’ve always been envious of a dog’s life. But the lives of the dogs here are attached with a certain degree of isolation melancholy as they cautiously travel up and down staircases, empty metro stations, and ancient ruins. Who knows what really goes on in the mind of a dog, but they definitely remember which man or woman is a threat. It’s easy to see why so many are skittish towards humans considering the penchant for violence and disregard for life.

For those who found Kornel Mundruczó’s 2014 film “White God”, which also featured stray and discarded dogs (in Hungary, not Turkey) too intense and graphic to watch, rest assured “Stray” is certainly more of a journey than it is a thriller. No doubt, the way in which we see the world is very much from the dogs perspective and how they are treated at times, with seemingly bothered people calling then various expletives (why you would curse at an animal is beyond me) certainly says more about them then it does about the poor canines that are trying to coexist with humans.

The often emotional score from Ali Helnwein maintains the contemplative mood throughout “Stray” in an effective manner, yet there are questions as the film ends and lingers after viewing. They are questions that I had while watching such as wondering how exactly Lo was able to get so close with these dogs and what kind (if any) of service was provided for these pups.





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