FFrom the moment Zeytin makes his first appearance in Elizabeth loThe characteristic of Stray, there is no doubt that it is in the presence of a unique spirit. As he gazes down an Istanbul side street at dawn, his features are alert, his gaze is uncompromising, and his deep, dark eyes shine with intelligence. There’s something from Katharine Hepburn in The African Queen about her, or maybe Brad Pitt in one of her less kind moments. But comparisons to people who aren’t dogs don’t do it justice. This is an untamed bitch.
He first met Zeytin and his friend Nazar on a casting trip to Turkey in 2017, and knew immediately that he had found the star he was looking for, that is, a dog that could carry a human film. “We were wandering through a crowded underground tunnel when all of a sudden these two giant stray dogs passed us,” he says. “They were running with such a sense of purpose and it was so intriguing. What appointments did these dogs have to attend? “
Lo and his small team of Turkish co-producers ended up following Zeytin, Nazar, and another dog, Kartal, to all their appointments in Istanbul over a period of more than two years, trying to answer that question. His documentary, shot entirely at dog’s height and featuring an immersive soundtrack by sound artist Ernst Karel, reveals a rich social calendar, as dogs trot to meetings with fishermen on Galata Bridge, lunch with gatherers garbage in the Istiklal Caddesi, energetically. relationships with male dogs and long nights sleeping on construction sites with Jamil, Halil and Aliof, three refugees from Aleppo.
Stray, Lo’s first feature documentary, is already a cult hit on the (virtual) festival circuit, enthusiastically received by both human and canine audiences. However, it challenges the sentimentality of pet movies like Marley & Me or even non-human-centered stories like Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar. Instead, it is a meditation on non-human intelligence that seems to open the way to a new interspecies cinema. Stubborn and independent Zeytin was the only dog throughout the casting process that didn’t try to follow the human crew. “It allowed us to follow her, to take us to places and for the audience to be wrapped up in a non-human will and agency,” Lo says.
It’s no surprise to find out that Lo is a dog lover. He grew up in Hong Kong with a sheepdog named Mikey and when Mikey died he vowed to make a film that honored a dog’s life on his own terms and not through the prism of ownership. “It was about re-centering a narrative, visual and sound, around a non-human gaze, breaking with an anthropocentric way of seeing the world,” he says.
His initial thought was to make a documentary comparing the treatment of stray dogs in different cities around the world, but the unusual legal situation of stray dogs in Istanbul ended up consuming his attention. For most of the past century, Turkish authorities have battled stray (and often rabid) dogs, eventually resorting to inhumane methods such as mass poisoning, which only made the dogs more hostile and dangerous. Finally, the public outcry forced a change in the law. Since 2004, it is illegal to euthanize or capture any stray dog in Turkey. The result, in Istanbul, is that dogs now eat, sleep, defecate and mate wherever they please. The authorities are limited to vaccinating, sterilizing, labeling and providing medical care to the homeless. What Lo saw as he followed Zeytin, Nazar, and Kartal was a city of 15 million people, caring for the city’s estimated 130,000 dogs, who lead far more satisfying lives as a result.
“The hour-long adventures these dogs would go on!” she marvels. “Walk on walk on walk on walk. Most pets never get to experience that. It made me realize the potential that dogs have, the wishes that are often not fulfilled, even under the care of people like pets. I hope that the film acts as a decolonizing tool, to challenge Eurocentric opinions about what a humane and just city is like ”.
What he witnessed in Istanbul was that dogs could be successfully integrated into a city without becoming a nuisance or harm to themselves, and dogs were, not coincidentally, much better socialized than the vast majority of pets in Los Angeles. where He has lived most of the time. decade. There are no interviews or commentary on the film, just a bit of overheard gossip, although there are some maxims from Diogenes of Sinope in 360BC: “Human beings live artificially and hypocritically and would do well to study the dog.” While Lo says he wouldn’t presume to speak for animals, this is a controversial film, heavily influenced by Donna Haraway’s writings on species relationships and John Berger’s essay, Why look at animals? And Lo’s chamber can’t help but make implicit comparisons, particularly between the state of the dogs and the Syrian refugees who befriend them. Zeytin and Nazar were running toward these “lost” men when Lo first encountered them in the tunnel, and their bond is at the core of the film. Once again, the relatively hospitable treatment of the refugees also took her by surprise. In the movie, we see how they move, but the security guards who do it usually apologize while doing it. “I felt a lot of compassion there. When I asked people how they felt about refugees, people often said, ‘They are our brothers, they are in need and Turkey is a haven for those in need.’ Even government officials would sometimes say that. “
I saw the film conditioned by stories like Black Beauty or White Fang to hope that at some point Zeytin would be subjected to cruelty and violence. But the moment does not come; she does not fit into our usual categories of victim or hero, wild or tame. There’s a hilarious moment where she wanders into the middle of a feminist rally where she’s petted by protesters, only to be ridden by a male dog as protesters loudly yell about consent. “I’m not sure what exactly the scene says, but I loved its surrealism,” laughs Lo.
Zeytin had charisma, but he made Lo work hard. It was unusual in that she was unfazed by Lo’s camera, which allowed for all those lingering close-ups, but it also proved intolerable to even the choicest cuts of meat, as she was so adept at finding whatever she wanted in the picture. Street. “A lot of times, we were just waiting and waiting and waiting for Zeytin to wake up, and sometimes she didn’t wake up until 5pm. Their rhythms were his. We just had to give up our desires for what we could expect from a movie’s story and deliver it to her. Sometimes it would chase sounds we couldn’t hear or smells we couldn’t smell. It was just a process of letting go and trying to dive in. “
After a night of filming, Lo would put on little GPS devices so he could find her again the next day. Even more challenging was the gap of nearly a year in the middle of filming. Everyone outside of Istanbul thought she would not survive long on the streets, but Lo found her within days of returning to the city. Even now, a couple of years after production ended, his friends in Istanbul still send him photos of Zeytin and Nazar every time they see them.
She hopes the movie will make people reflect on our double standards when it comes to dogs in the west. She is disturbed by the internet and the fashion driven by the confinement of purebred dogs: “Have these pet owners stopped to consider where is the mother of their beloved, how much has she suffered in the breeding facilities?” However, he believes that owning a pet can be a gateway to empathy with other species, noting that in California, pet owners vote in far greater numbers for animal welfare measures. And he hopes the movie makes us question our assumptions.
“We think that we treat dogs better in the west. But really the fact that New York, London, Los Angeles don’t having dogs on the street is indicative of how intolerant we really are. Unless a dog is property, it has no rights. Which is insane if you think about it. In a way, we have recast the insanity of killing millions of dogs each year or letting them languish in cells as moral when in fact it is the opposite. “
In Istanbul, he says, he was able to have satisfying relationships with animals that were not based on ownership, and he has missed it ever since. “John Berger writes: Perhaps the impulse to go to the zoo is to satisfy this desire that is so lacking in our modern existence. It is in our blood to be with other species and to communicate with them. The experience in Turkey showed me what I had missed in the cultures in which I grew up, where the streets are devoid of other species. That’s such an impoverished way of going through the world. “
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism