One of the least helpful remarks made by critics about documentaries is also one of the most frequent: it’s a variation on the idea that being aware of the camera’s presence changes the behaviour of the person it’s capturing—“but they wouldn’t act like that if the camera wasn’t present!” The impact of surveillance on this point is surely worth invoking; but the tension between indexical record and performance in documentary is, at least for me, one of its chief pleasures. The mentality described above is that of a fact-checker: and more often than not this is someone uninterested in what the filmmakers have set out to do in collaboration with their subjects. But all of this is upended when the subjects aren’t human and have no conception of the idea of being filmed: which throws up its own set of problems.
The subjects in Elizabeth Lo’s Stray are a group of stray dogs roaming the streets of Istanbul. A few are leaned into: Nazar, Kartal the puppy, but attended to most closely are the day-to-day quests of Zeytin, who the film follows following her nose. Much like Bettina Perut and Iván Osnovikoff’s Los Reyes, most of what’s seen in Stray is seen in dog’s-eye-view, in close-up, to emphasise the immediacy and tactility of her and the other dogs’ experience: searching, resting, scrapping, foraging, playing. There’s a great deal of ground-level travelling shots, recurring use of soft-focus, and in one break from routine, even the application of a GoPro camera. The work of films produced by Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab (with Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel’s Leviathan at the masthead) has clearly been instructive, in ways both helpful and hindering.
Stray’s Turkish setting and its non-human subjects both suggest a comparison with Ceyda Torun’s Kedi. But where Kedi is light and (very literally) fluffy, punctuated by a chipper score and human testimonies that wax poetic about the place of cats in Turkish life, Stray is a somber affair, downcast in tone, ready with a few—perhaps a few too many—asservations to cast its audience’s way, and a less rosy view on the relationship between canines and humans. Intertitles alternate between contextualising the past institutionalised mass slaughter of stray dogs in the country and quotations from Diogenes the cynic and the Roman philosopher Themistius, both rhapsodising the figure of the dog and chastising humans for their ill treatment of them. But the overreliance on these lines is too cute by half. Especially when I consider the role that humans do end up playing in the film.
People stop in the street to give a Zeytin and the others a quick pet on occasion; a construction crew takes special care of Kartal, who they find adorable; a man taking out bins in the city centre makes sure each of the two dogs tracked has a bone to chew. But there’s some ambivalence too: a woman worries Zeytin might attack her pet, a smaller breed; a pair of tourists curse her. These are prosaic interactions and they are given no particular emphasis. But there’s a difference in the way other human presences are registered. A group of Syrian refugees enlist the dogs’ companionship; Zeytin and others end up on the street during a women’s march; she encounters a trio of homeless men gathered around a fire in the park, discussing differing views on an upcoming vote. Lo is using the daily perambulations of the dogs as an allegory for political dispossession.
But by casting the relationship between the dogs and the chanced upon humans in a figurative manner Lo ends up glancing at both rather than seeing them. (But at least Stray isn’t as non-committal as Kedi: all that film musters about politics is a background graffito that reads, “Erdo-gone!”) This could have something to do with the shooting ratio: two years of footage has been condensed into 72-minutes, and, inevitably, Stray feels clipped and its sequences appear over-designed. Los Reyes is a longer film by all of six-minutes, but by way of concerning itself with the absolute contingency of its two skatepark strays, Chola and Football, the film’s record of the dogs’ lives is fuller, with more allowance for dead time and aimless wandering, random interactions and chasing tennis balls. Both films use the gesture of the dog howling, but to varying effects. Stray ends with it, as Zeytin responds in her plaintive way to the call of the morning prayer. In Los Reyes it hits harder because it’s spontaneous: in the main body of the film, unprompted, one of the dogs hears the sound of a siren’s moan coming from a nearby Santiago street. In long shot, the dog leans up and imitates the whine. In that moment, Los Reyes underscores the abandonment of its subjects with a delicacy and subtlety that Stray desires to demonstrate, and never quite does.