STRAY Film Review — Dogs So Regal

Editor’s Note:  STRAY is being presented as a virtual screening event Thru March 21st, 2021, to support the Safe Humane Chicago nonprofit organization, which will receive a portion of all ticket sales, to support their continued efforts for humane animal treatment, education, and advocacy.

As the credits roll, we see a handsome yellow dog whom we have followed into many corners of Istanbul, crooning along with the muezzin from a neighboring mosque.  It is sunset and this canine-human duet summon the city to prayer with mournful harmony, as though they have rehearsed for a lifetime. It’s canine-human soul music. This reviewer can think of no other film evoking an urgent advisory to watch the film credits more than once, if not daily, and to start your film watch at the end, so you can later greet it as an old friend in the finale reprise. 

Our canine tenor is one of three dogs whom we get to bond with and follow as they wind through the streets, back alleys, and squats of Istanbul.  The latter is where we also meet strays of a different sort—Syrian refugee street children, now young adults, who are surviving on a thread.  By the snippet of one boy’s biography that we learn—viz. how his entire family, except him, had papers to get into Turkey when they came from war-torn Aleppo—one might think their lives are all Kafkaesque gloom.  It is the black and white spotted puppy though, the pick of the litter, whom this boy manages to snare and transform into his bedmate that telegraphs how even he finds joie de vivre, living, not just surviving.   We see how the boy’s life takes on a new purpose, making sure that this puppy is fed and sheltered.  From this writer’s view, you’d have to be a stone-cold cynic, not to feel that all is right in the world as you watch this boy and puppy snuggle.

There is little dialogue in the film.  Anyone who has ever loved a dog will not need much. Transitions often come in the form of quotes from the Ancient Turk philosopher Diogenes, whom you too might rush to google about after watching the film and find much to smile about as you consider why the filmmakers chose his words to pepper their script.  

If you have spent some time in Istanbul, as this writer has**, Stray has the added thrill of taking you to spots familiar—where a main ferry station borders the largest downtown bus depot; strips of shops beyond the most famous Blue Mosque, the high point of Taksim Square, and more.  

At times our three canine leads meet up with their larger community of strays, some with ear tags identifying them as vaccinated and spayed. They also mingle with the humans in their midst with an aloof air that makes them seem above it all – or below- - depending on your attitude towards all things dog.  In the most public areas they fornicate and defecate, as the commentary from humans in their midst about such comes across more as muffled babble. Like so many dogs in developing countries, they have the countenance of Buddha dogs, sitting calmly in the fork of two fast-moving traffic lanes. In one short scene when humans come to break up a street brawl between the roaming gang of stray dogs we feel the shock of missing the dogs’ habitual calm, even more upsetting perhaps than the danger of blood being drawn.

STRAY Reaches Beyond Erdogan’s Control

Filmed from 2017 to 2019, it strikes this reviewer that the focus on dogs’ lives allowed the filmmakers to make one of the most profound explorations of the global refugee crisis possible—keeping the camera at street level.  Like the dogs, the stray boys evoke the extremes of fear and revulsion on one hand or generosity and compassion on the other.**  This is subversive filmmaking at its best.

Nellie of Istanbul Photo: Peter Kachergis

**Editor’s Note:  The author of this review, Picture This Post Editor Amy Munice, had lived in Istanbul for two months in the Summer of 2014, dog-sitting for a Golden Doodle named Nellie who lived on the campus of the relatively posh and exclusive Roberts College, a prep school for Turkey’s elite youth.  This occasioned many trips to the veterinarian, where Nellie, like other domesticated pet dogs shown in the film, had to be vigilantly guarded from territorial attacks by the large packs of stray dogs just outside the sheltered campus walls.

This was also a time when Erdogan’s first moves to squelch any political resistance were creating an atmosphere of fear mixed with bravado among more secular locals.  Parents would churn options of whether to stay or go, deciding that when the day came that their young daughter was forced to wear a hijab in school they would emigrate.  Hipster administrators of cultural centers for contemporary art and music would wax at great length about how Erdogan was not their president, with almost the same words one would later hear in US protests the day after Trump’s election.  A pro-democracy sign holder at an outdoor Neal Young and Crazy Horse concert scampered away in terror as soon as he realized his picture was being taken by this unwitting photographer/reporter team.  

And daily, one would see the newly arrived Syrian refugees—usually strikingly exotic beauties, young mothers carrying small children and wearing clothing that made them look like they walked out of the pages of an illustrated bible.  They panhandled with some success.  One would also meet locals eager to chat up American tourists who mouthed unfiltered rage and loathing about such refugee filth in their midst.  

Three years later, they started to film Stray…


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Filmmaker: Elizabeth Lo

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Images courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Amy Munice

About the Author: Amy Munice

Amy Munice is Editor-in-Chief and Co-Publisher of Picture This Post. She covers books, dance, film, theater, music, museums and travel. Prior to founding Picture This Post, Amy was a freelance writer and global PR specialist for decades—writing and ghostwriting thousands of articles and promotional communications on a wide range of technical and not-so-technical topics.

Amy hopes the magazine’s click-a-picture-to-read-a-vivid-account format will nourish those ever hunting for under-discovered cultural treasures. She especially loves writing articles about travel finds, showcasing works by cultural warriors of a progressive bent, and shining a light on bold, creative strokes by fledgling artists in all genres.


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