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Review: Documentary ‘Stray’ tenderly captures the world of dogs on the streets of Istanbul

Zeytin in the documentary "Stray."
(Magnolia Pictures)

The Times is committed to reviewing theatrical film releases during the COVID-19 pandemic. Because moviegoing carries risks during this time, we remind readers to follow health and safety guidelines as outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local health officials.

A canine companion to celebrated feline documentary “Kedi,” Elizabeth Lo’s “Stray” devotes its attention to the dogs living on the streets in Turkey. Though ostensibly about Istanbul’s canine population, the stirring film sheds light on the human experience of the city as well. We catch snippets of conversations about politics and relationships of the Turkish residents, but the documentary is most revealing about the lives of young Syrian refugees who sleep on the streets alongside the dogs — and how the citizens treat them.

Lo’s empathetic camera travels at the eye level of three dogs: dignified Zeytin, friendly Nazar and adorable puppy Kantal. We follow each of them as they wander the city, evading busy lanes of traffic, sleeping in the sun and interrupting a feminist protest. They experience both casual cruelty and much-needed kindness from the humans they live among, and it’s never clear whether they’re about to receive a friendly ear scratch or the blast of a hose.

What Lo captures is remarkable (especially in a simply wonderful credits scene), as she stays with dogs that most people see only for a moment. The director takes a spare approach in her filmmaking: Rather than the standard narration of most nature films, she breaks up the dog’s-eye view of the action only with text from ancient Greek philosophers Diogenes and Themistius. These quotes establish not only our millenniums-long relationship with dogs but also how much we share with them.

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The similarities between the two species’ experiences are further highlighted with the refugees who weave in and out of the dogs’ days and nights. The Turkish authorities don’t seem to know how to deal with either group, and there’s a kinship among the teen boys and the dogs, who at times struggle to survive in Istanbul but also find joy and community there. Lo’s humane film helps us glimpse the lives of those who are often overlooked, whether they walk the streets of Istanbul on four legs or two.

‘Stray’

In English and Turkish with English subtitles

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 12 minutes

Playing: Available March 5, Laemmle Virtual Cinema, digital and VOD; and in limited release where theaters are open


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