Thursday, 8 October 2020

STRAY - London Film Festival 2020

Switching gears to be a virtual festival, with screenings taking place at home on the BFI Player and some select films also receiving screenings at venues up and down the country, the BFI London Film Festival 2020 is now underway. One of the first films I was able to catch at the festival was Elizabeth Lo's documentary Stray, following the life of Zeytin, a stray dog living on the streets of Istanbul. With a camera always close by, Zeytin shows us a typical day in her life, weaving in between traffic on busy roads, drinking from fountains and crossing paths with other dog friends and adversaries along the way. Her closest allies are a group of teenage Syrian refugees who live on the streets and in derelict buildings, sharing a lot of similar problems and treated the same way by the authorities. The film doesn't present this as a heavy handed allegory, but the subtext is plain to see. When the stray dog population grew out of hand, the Turkish government enacted a controversial plan to cull most of the dogs, leading to protests that saw them change the country's law, making it illegal to "euthanise or hold captive any stray dog". This has lead to an uneasy truce that sees the dogs roam the streets as they please, almost as if it is their city and they are the ones allowing the human population to be there.

The concept of Stray is a simple but powerful one, telling a larger story via Zeytin's life. This could have quite easily been a documentary charting the refugee crisis and focussing on the homeless children that occupy the streets, but the choice to home in on a stray dog, and Zeytin in particular, has provided a richer world to explore and capture on film. There are other dogs in the story, namely her best friend Nazar and a Kartal, a puppy who has caught the eye of the teenagers; but for the most part the camera is never more than a few feet away from Zeytin, often racing to keep up with her lawless antics. The closest thing I can compare it too is Larry Clark's Kids meets that episode of The Simpsons where Santa's Little Helper runs away, although rather than fighting bears or saving babies from burning buildings, these dogs show off their freedom by digging through trash for food and humping in the middle of a women's rights march. A documentary with a clear message behind it, using Diogenes quotes to equate the respect that is shown to the dogs in contrast to the treatment of the refugees sleeping on the streets, it has to be said that if the message somehow falls flat, Stray also works as a hang-out movie, so engrossing it is to watch the different behaviours of the dogs and how they interact with one another. Even if you're not a dog person, you'll soon be completely enthralled by Zeytin's journey.

The camera is positioned no higher than dog head height at all times, giving a unique perspective on the world and a true sense of what it must be like to feel like to be ignored by society. The people around them are literally higher-uppers. We hear the sounds of the streets and eavesdrop on the conversations of passers-by and people the dogs choose to sit down next to, their words carrying like an echo, and for the dogs just another source of noise in their city. What's surprising is that even though the camera stays about 3 feet off the ground and shows the dogs facing a forest of human legs before them, what we do see of the city paints it as a vibrant, bustling place to be, full of visitors, workers, traffic and nightlife. It's unlikely to be used by the Turkish tourism industry, but this film captures the beauty of the area, as well as the uglier side in the treatment of the young boys sleeping rough on the streets.

Showing a daily routine like no other, Stray is an impactful, moving documentary that is expertly captured by debut feature director (also producer, cinematographer and editor), Elizabeth Lo. Tinged with a sense of sadness but also playfulness, it's hard not to be moved by the whole experience.

Verdict

4/5

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