By Annette Hinkle
When Elizabeth Lo’s dog from childhood died, she grieved mightily, as all pet owners do. But as a filmmaker, she also considered how she could take the grieving process a bit further than most people ever would.
“I was also grieving the external politics that defined him as less than human,” explained Lo in a recent phone interview. “I wanted to make a film that centered on a dog’s life and gave value to it.”
The result of Lo’s cinematic mission is “Stray,” her new feature-length documentary that will be screened at the upcoming 28th annual Hamptons International Film Festival. Lo, a native of Hong Kong and a graduate of New York University’s film program and Stanford University’s two-year documentary program, lives in Los Angeles now, but her desire to train a lens on the real lives of dogs took her to Istanbul, Turkey, because of one simple reason — it’s a city where stray dogs have special protected status.
“I came across Turkey because it has such a unique relationship with strays,” said Lo, who had no connection to Istanbul prior to setting out to make her film. “People fought for the right to have dogs on the street without owners.
“I thought that was remarkable.”
Istanbul is home to 15 million people and some 130,000 stray dogs. For more than a century, it struggled to get a handle on its stray dog problem. Back in 1910, tens of thousands of the city’s dogs were rounded up and transported to an island where they were left to starve to death. But the problem of overpopulation persisted, and as recently as 20 years ago, stray dogs were being poisoned by the government in order to reduce their numbers.
But that act led animal rights activists to organize protests, and in 2004, the Turkish government enacted legislation mandating rehabilitation of strays instead of euthanasia. Today, after being rounded up, dogs — the program includes cats too — are vaccinated, sterilized and returned to the streets. Chips in their ears track the animals and indicate they have been treated.
In order to tell the story of Istanbul’s free-roaming canines, Lo set out to explore the city through the eyes of the strays themselves. The film follows a trio of homeless dogs — Zeytin, Nazar and Kartel — as they make their way along the streets, sidewalks and waterways around Istanbul. Lo’s first scouting trip to Istanbul was back in 2017, just as the city was dealing with an influx of refugees, terrorists attacks and a rise in authoritarian rule.
“I wanted to see if stray dogs on the peripheral and bottom tier of society could take the pulse of the country and the world,” said Lo, who initially tried what she called a “top down approach” to the film, focusing on political protests in the city at the time.
“It didn’t feel authentic,” she admitted. “So in 2018, we went back and did not preproduce any of it. We allowed ourselves to be open to the dogs of the city.”
That meant letting the dogs set the agenda and the route, which often led Lo to discovering places she would never have found on her own, including an abandoned building where a group of homeless teenage boys — Syrian refugees — spent much of their time. The boys, who huffed glue and solicited handouts from passersby on the street, enjoyed a unique kinship with the strays, given their similar life circumstances, and often the dogs slept at their sides. At one point in the film, they take a puppy from a stray female in order to raise it as their own.
“The Syrian boys had this compulsion to acquire more puppies and dogs,” Lo said. “I think life on the streets is really harsh and tough. When they’d reunite with the dogs, you could see the joy. They’re in a country that is not their own, and I feel the dogs gave them a sense of being a tribe on the street. When they acquire Kartel the puppy, you could tell Kartel was suffering a bit. But I had to respect the desire of these boys to care for something. It was ancient and profound.”
While all three of Lo’s subjects have their moment in the film, it is Zeytin who is the undisputed star of “Stray,” and in her, Lo admits she found the perfect subject for her documentary.
“The film is an attempt to decenter the human world and Zeytin emerged early on,” Lo said. “When we met her, she happened to be running through an underground tunnel with such a sense of purpose. She led us to the Syrian young men who she had an on-again-off-again relationship with. We got to know her wide range within the city she traversed.
“Zeytin was also one of the rare dogs that wouldn’t follow us back. We valued her, she was so radically independent.”
In one poignant scene, Nazar and Zeytin, whom Lo describes as two “strong non-human women” join a large crowd of protesters taking part in a woman’s march on the streets. When, rather inappropriately, a stray male appears on the scene and attempts to mate with one of them, several marchers in the crowd admonish the dog by jokingly asking if he had gotten consent.
“What I found really remarkable is the dogs are well treated by society and the ones that survive are emotionally in tune and intelligent,” she said. “There are very few antisocial dogs there. I felt safe there, I felt the dogs would protect me from people who would harass me.”
When asked if hunger was an issue for Istanbul’s strays, Lo said, “Not at all.
“At first, we tried to bribe Zeytin with meat to wake her up, but she refused. She had a good selection of food. Butchers put out bones and meats and other restaurants put out food. I think it’s remarkable that society has decided to coexist in this way.”
As a filmmaker, Lo will tell you that this was no typical shoot with a predictable production schedule. To capture the authenticity of the dogs lives on the street, Lo and her small crew had to adapt to their schedules, rather than imposing their own preferred shooting times on their subjects.
That meant following the dogs as soon as they got up at the crack of dawn to work their way through the quiet city in search of scraps and handouts from garbage collectors. By 9 a.m., the dogs would settle down to sleep through the heat of the day as the city bustled around them. Then they’d hit the streets again as night fell, wandering the city until about 2 a.m.
“They wouldn’t do anything on some days. In a way, they embody an anti-capitalism, anti-industrialism mind set,” she said. “They don’t contribute to society in these monetary ways and that’s what makes them so defiant. As a symbol to follow in a city, they are serving no economic purpose.”
In addition to reconfiguring the work day in order to accommodate their subjects’ unconventional schedules, another challenge for Lo and her crew was figuring out how to effectively capture the dogs’ lives and perspectives visually on film. It involved a bit of trial and error.
“We tried GoPros on the dogs, but it was too alienating for audiences,” she said. “Eventually, we had a gimbal with a camera on board. I would crouch low and stay next to the dog. The quality was important and we wanted to treat them visually and cinematically. Crouching low and chasing them, sometimes I struggled — I felt like a dog.”
Lo admits that many people on the streets of Istanbul probably thought she was out of her mind, following strays, as she did, with camera equipment in hand. Because Lo doesn’t speak Turkish, she felt a true kinship to the dogs and wasn’t distracted by the brief bits of conversation her cameras picked up while passing café tables or pedestrians on the street.
“I had no connection with Istanbul prior to arriving there to make the film. As a complete outsider, the mission was to follow the dogs and where they’d lead us if you leave it up to dogs,” she said. “Because I was a foreigner, I feel I was given access to conversations and people that I wouldn’t normally be allowed in to. I was following dogs and processing language through body language and I felt increasingly dog-like.
“Just like the dogs, I was an outsider, but deeply entwined,” she added. “Through dogs, what do we see about society around us? I grew up in Hong Kong and dogs had to go somewhere where they’re not a menace to a society. This flipped everything on its head. I think a lot of people in the West think it’s inhumane, but to have dogs live only as pets or in shelters reflects another being’s reality.
“Zeytin’s life is so rich. They have so much curiosity and quirks,” she said. “My pet dog’s life was so much less rich.”
During the many hours Lo spent with the dogs, not only did she discover the daily rhythms and patterns that defined the life of strays, she also found that a certain bond and sense of mutual respect developed between her and her subjects.
“It was interesting to be in the field with them and see the choices they made,” Lo said. “At one point, Zeytin chose to go on a road with lots of traffic on it. As a cinematographer, I liked having the scene of the cars in the city. As I edited the footage, I realized she may have been doing it for me. There’s a moment when she looks back at me, like, ‘Hey, did you get the shot?’”
Lo also feels that over time, she and the dogs arrived at an unspoken understanding about their internal emotions.
“The dogs would be more aggressive whenever I felt personally annoyed. I realized they’re so sensitive to our inner-most desires,” she said. “All those stereotypes that you can’t lie to a dog are true.”
Though Lo built a strong relationship with her subjects, in the end, they decidedly maintained their own sense of autonomy, as one might expect in a street dog.
“They wouldn’t be super excited to see me,” Lo said. “They’re strays who are jaded. Sometimes, they’d walk me home at night. Every time they were with me, it was because they wanted to be.”
Ah, if only we humans could know for sure that the same is true of our own dogs who are captive in our homes and our hearts.
The Hamptons International Film Festival runs October 8 to 14 in a virtual and drive-in format. To purchase tickets and passes, and for a full festival run-down, visit hamptonsfilmfest.org.