Zeytin is star of the film “Stray,” about the ownerless dogs that roam the streets of Istanbul. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

It’s an old saying that people care more about animals than they do for their fellow human beings. And while that’s depressing, it’s not without basis. An animal in need, or in pain, is an uncomplicated thing, and our reaction to it is untroubled by the myriad animosities, prejudices and intellectually girded judgements about the needy we reserve for our fellow humans. We (people, I mean) are messy, untrustworthy, thoroughly screwed-up beasts. A dog simply is. 

That’s the heart-achingly direct but complex message running through “Stray,” the 2020 documentary from director Elizabeth Lo, now streaming through both PMA Films and Brunswick’s Frontier. The film, shot over two years on the streets in and around the Turkish city of Istanbul, explains at the outset that, after a century of hunting down and exterminating the many, many stray dogs that roam the country, the law now guarantees that no strays can be harmed or imprisoned. So the streets teem with wandering, ownerless dogs that make their home among the busy bustle and discarded places of man. 

Lo’s camera is unobtrusive, and so is “Stray.” Held usually at dog level and trailing unremarked-upon behind her subjects, Lo’s lens observes the world much like a dog would, her microphones picking up snatches of chatter from people seated at cafes or walking the sidewalks. (There’s no narration, and Lo confines her commentary to judiciously chosen famous quotations about the comparatively holy nature of doghood.) Occasionally, someone addresses the animals, either in irritation or, more frequently, with a matter-of-fact nod toward another traveler through the city streets. 

The film opens with a quotation from Diogenes, “Human beings live artificially and hypocritically and would do well to study the dog.” And Lo studies one dog in particular. Her name is Zeytin (which means “olive” in Turkish), and she’s got yellow fur, a slight limp, expressive eyes and, as Lo finds through her association with her, a true mastery of survival on the fringes of the human world. In “Stray,” it is Zeytin’s world, and we’re merely allowed to tag along.

We meet other dogs in passing, some wary, a few hostile, and some very nervous and pampered pets on leashes. But this is Zeytin’s show, her watchful but purposeful movements weaving all through Istanbul’s environs, from busy highway roadsides to the always-rumbling harbor to the rundown construction site where we’re first introduced to “Stray’s” other homeless denizens, a group of young refugee boys from Syria who have adopted Zeytin not so much as a pet but as one of the gang. Lost and defenseless themselves, the boys are immediately humanized to the viewer, not so much because of their plight (the penniless kids huff glue from discarded plastic bags and beg for change), but because we see their generosity and genuine love for Zeytin (and a male dog named Nazar, who sports inexplicable streaks of blue paint on his sides like graffiti and seems to be Zeytin’s chosen companion). 

Again, that’s the way “Stray” transcends our expectations for a predictably pat feature-length version of one of those ASPCA commercials. We wonder how Lo knows Zeytin’s name at first, only well into the film meeting the boys who delightedly call it out upon spying their friend emerging onto the thoroughfare where they’re plying their trade. In their shared, under-construction hideout, dog and boy splay indiscriminately, equally luxuriating in the shelter, friendship and warmth. During the day, Zeytin goes her way and the boys theirs, meeting up throughout their travels to share food, or a blanket on the street, and always happy for the company. 

We come to care about the boys, but we love Zeytin. Threats come in intervals (an unexpectedly hostile dog, a woman screaming abuse), but it’s the people we watch out for. Some men feeding a trashcan fire speculate upon Zeytin’s age, with one noting the sturdy animal’s suitability for dogfighting, and our fear spikes. A women’s rights march through the Istanbul streets comes upon Zeytin and Nazar unashamedly coupling, and laughingly scold that the male dog has to ask Zeytin for consent. The boys are rousted by a not-unreasonable watchman, and it’s their prickly confrontation we worry will spill over into something darker, standing aside with Zeytin to anxiously watch. A nighttime raid by the boys on the site’s employee trailer sees them snatch up a new puppy and dash away into the night, delightedly naming the shivering little guy Sari, while Lo’s juddering camera sprints alongside. 

In the aftermath of their heist, we tremble along with the young dog, not because we imagine the boys will harm it (“They hurt themselves, but I don’t think they would hurt animals,” Lo catches the construction workers musing after the theft), but simply because it is a hard, cold world out there. And a gang of rootless, homeless boys, no matter how much they obviously love their canine friends, are at that world’s mercy. When the inevitable happens to the rough-sleeping boys one night, Lo’s onscreen note about their fate lands hard. 

We love dogs. And we’ve conditioned them to love us. But ours is a conditional love, whereas theirs is not. Freed from the domesticated safety of human ownership, Zeytin and her ilk are in limbo, clearly relishing the wide-openness of a life wandering wherever their well-worn pads take them, while Lo’s camera catches glimpses of their innate need for affection and companionship from us as we pass them by. “Stray” shows a confused, sometimes perilous world where dogs and humans walk warily past each other, uncertain of our relationship when the old rules no longer apply. In the fascinating world of “Stray,”even the smallest comfort (a scrap of carpet to sleep upon, a kindly word and a treat from a passer-by, a dry spot in the rain) rings with a profundity maybe only dogs can truly hear. There’s even a post-credits scene that puts any Marvel movie to shame with its mysterious summation of Zeytin’s understanding of us and what we expect from her. 

The 72-minute “Stray” (which received support from none other than Maine’s own Points North Institute) is screening virtually through both PMA Films and Frontier for $12, with part of each ticket purchase going right toward keeping those vital Maine movie venues afloat until the world allows us to visit them again. (As a pro-tip, pair “Stray” with “Kedi,” the similarly affecting 2017 documentary about Istanbul’s many stray cats. It’s available on YouTube Premium and Kanopy.)

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Auburn with his wife and cat.

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