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film review

Zeytin is a beautiful, indeterminable breed of dog who spends her days roaming the streets of Istanbul.Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures / Mongrel Media

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  • Stray
  • Written and directed by Elizabeth Lo
  • Classification N/A; 72 minutes

Having made two short films about dogs, I don’t consider myself an “expert” on the subject, but I can say I think I understand the impetus that drove Elizabeth Lo to make her new documentary, Stray. She has suggested that the passing of her childhood dog stuck with her into adulthood, and inspired her to give a lead role to the often relegated sidekick. I also followed that instinct with my 2018 short film Norman Norman, about the imminent passing of my long-time pal, the titular Norman. I sense we both felt the impulse to give back through our filmmaking, and to learn from the experience of loving and losing a dog.

The main character of Stray is a dog named Zeytin – a beautiful, indeterminable breed of dog who spends her days roaming the streets of Istanbul. The film opens with this poignant quote: “Human beings live artificially and hypocritically and would do well to study the dog” (Diogenes of Sinope, 360 BCE). Lo has mentioned she wanted to afford dogs the dignity of narrative time and space that they are often not given. Stray, like any good film, makes sure the audience remains immersed in the main character’s point of view. Most impressively, she accomplishes this all without a single line of dialogue from our leading gentlewoman.

Lo has created something worth seeking out for anyone who wants to expand their world view.Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures / Mongrel Media

How does she pull this off? Well, I believe dogs are a somewhat untapped cinematic device. If staged and edited correctly, a dog can say anything you want it to say without you ever having to CGI its mouth into saying stupid human things a dog would never say. The very simple editing principal of the “Kuleshov effect” is at play here, wherein two images can be shown to create the suggestion of a narrative that wouldn’t be there with just one shot. You can impose just about any emotion onto a dog depending on what comes before, after, and around it in the frame. Stray does this seamlessly across its swift 70-minute runtime.

For example, at one moment two dogs enthusiastically hump while protesters chant in the background, “There can’t be love without equality!” Early in the film we see Zeytin seemingly absolutely devastated as she hears about her homeless human comrades being evicted from their most recent desperate attempt for shelter. It’s through this juxtaposition that we project a variety of emotions onto the dog. You don’t even need a camera; we do it shamelessly at home all the time to our probably not-actually-guilty domesticated friends.

Stray is as much a testament to dogs’ empathy for humans as it is human’s empathy for dogs. By handing the spotlight, and even the camera, over to the bold and beautiful Zeytin without guiding the viewer too aggressively, Lo has created something worth seeking out for anyone who wants to expand their world view – and perhaps also lower it a few feet.

Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures / Mongrel Media

Stray is available on-demand, including Apple TV/iTunes and VIFF Connect, starting March 5

In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a Critic’s Pick designation across all coverage.