(Release Info London schedule; March 26th, 2021, Curzon Home Cinema)
In "Stray", a trio of canine outcasts roam the streets of 'Istanbul'. Through their eyes and ears, we're shown an intimate portrait of the life of a city and it's people. In 'Istanbul', stray dogs are an everyday part of the fabric of the community, belonging to no one and everyone at the same time. Among them are the expressive, independent Zeytin; the friendly Nazar; and the shy puppy, Kartal. But 'The Turkish' city is home to human strays as well, as Zeytin and her friends bond with a trio of young 'Syrian' refugees. Through the eyes of three stray dogs wandering the streets of Istanbul, "Stray" explores what it means to live as a being without status or security. As they search for food and shelter, Zeytin, Nazar and Kartal embark on inconspicuous journeys through 'Turkish' society that allow us an unvarnished portrait of human life, and their own canine culture. Zeytin, fiercely independent, embarks on solitary adventures through the city at night; Nazar, nurturing and protective, easily befriends the humans around her; while Kartal, a shy puppy living on the outskirts of a construction site, finds refuge with the security guards who care for her. The disparate lives of Zeytin, Nazar and Kartal intersect when they each form intimate bonds with Jamil, Halil and Ali, a group of young 'Syrians', who share the streets with them. Whether they lead us into bustling streets or decrepit ruins, the gaze of these strays act as windows into the overlooked corners of society; women in loveless marriages, protesters without arms, refugees without sanctuary.
Zeytin is the canine protagonist. She's an inconspicuous stray dog. The film follows Zeytin as she traverses across class, ethnic and gender lines in a way only stray dogs can. She's a character who fully envelopes us within her own nonhuman will, a quality that's vital to a story about dogs who, unlike pets, are not only defined by their relationship to humans. She's quickly joined by Nazar, another street dog. As it turned out, they're on the heels of a group of young men from Syria, Jamil, Halil and Ali, who are living on the streets as refugees in Turkey. The film follows them over months as they find shelter in construction sites and quiet sidewalks together. Despite the harshness of their circumstances, the dogs and boys have formed a makeshift family unit. The warmth and love emanating from their interdependent bond is deeply moving. Without the companionship of the dogs, 'The Syrian' boys feel adrift in a city not their own, and perhaps it's the same for Zeytin and Nazar.
The documentary is based on John Berger’s landmark essay 'Why Look At Animals' (1977). The essay speaks to the need of recognizing the destructive nature of our anthropocentrism. When our dog dies we feel a quiet need to suppress our grief at his passing. We're shocked that something as personal as how our heart responds to the death of a loved one could be shaped by an external politics that defined him or it as valueless. We also see how our moral conceptions of who or how much one matters can be in constant flux. This transformative moment is what propels "Stray’s" exploration into value, hierarchy, and sentience. "Stray" tracks the canines through the city’s streets, capturing their experiences and generating deep empathy without resorting to simple anthropomorphism. The point of view of the dogs allows a visually overwhelming critical observation, distant and finally moving, of a society, but easily extrapolated to any other, full of contrasts and inequalities, of moments of darkness and epiphany. Human beings live artificially and hypocritically and would do well to study the dog. Dogs keep watch over human beings, not to ensure that they do not lose their property, but rather that they do not get robbed of their integrity. We've to nuzzle the kind, bark at the greedy, and bite scoundrels. To become a true individual and proper human being, one must turn aside from conventional society and reject all it's values, to live in accordance with nature, and nature at a very basic level. The film is a critical observation of human civilization through the unfamiliar gaze of dogs and a sensory voyage into new ways of seeing.
'Turkey' is a country whose history and relationship with strays is unique in the world. 'Turkish' authorities have tried to annihilate stray dogs since 1909, leading to mass killings of Istanbul’s street dogs for the last century. But widespread protests against these killings transformed 'Turkey' into one of the only countries where it's now illegal to euthanize or hold captive any stray dog. Every free-roaming dog today is an emblem of resistance, living manifestations of compassion in the face of intolerance. It leads us into the cracks of human society, where community is formed in the crucibles of war and neglect, and where beings persist and survive even as they're relegated to the peripheries of society. It's a strenuous but literal way to challenge conventional modes of seeing and being in the world. "Stray" is an attempt to visually and aurally recenter the world around a nonhuman gaze. A.world in which human dialogue becomes radically secondary to heightened frequencies, and where a classical score is set against the gritty, lived experiences of those whom society has left behind.
The film traverses a socio-cultural terrain in which for a moment, one nation becomes refuge for many others. When xenophobia, species destruction and nationalist sentiment are rising all around the world, "Stray" springs from these cracks in our anthropocentric modernity. It asks us to re-evaluate what it means that our streets are continuously emptied of everyone except those whom we’ve deemed to be it's legitimate citizens. "Stray" pushes the boundaries of the cinematic medium in order to explore and challenge unequal states of personhood, to expand viewer's circles of moral and perceptual consideration beyond their own class, culture, and species.