Istanbul stray dogs Zeytin, Nazar and Kartal star in movie Stray

A scene from STRAY, photo: Magnolia Pictures
A scene from Stray, photo: Magnolia Pictures

Zeytin likes to walk through the streets of Istanbul at night, Nazar easily befriends humans, while Kartal, a shy puppy, lives on a construction site. These three dogs are the stars in the new documentary Stray.

The documentary looks at daily life in Istanbul through the eyes of Zeytin, Nazar and Kartal who roam the streets, search for food and interact with humans.

Inspired by her grief when her dog died, director Elizabeth Lo says she wanted to make a film about dogs. “I remember at the time feeling like I needed to suppress my grief at his passing because he wasn’t a human family member,” Lo tells Reuters.

She started questioning the species’ hierarchy and what sentience means because she could feel the depth of her dog’s being and existence.

“In 2017, I traveled to Turkey, 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,” she says.

“But widespread protests against these killings transformed Turkey into one of the only countries where it is now illegal to euthanize or hold captive any stray dog.”

“I remember when I landed in Turkey and went to Istanbul and saw the way the dogs were living. It felt like they were communally cared for,” she continues.

“I wanted to document that and capture that for the rest of the world to see, to sort of ask us to reconsider our relationships with other species and in particular dogs.”

Lo found Zeytin, the star of the film, in a tunnel where she saw her running after a group of young Syrian refugees.

She was moved by the relationship between the refugees and the dogs because she feels it was a primal urge people have towards dogs to “need each other to survive in our most difficult times”.

Lo wore a special vest to support her camera while following the dogs as they ran around, ate or laid down next to strangers listening to their conversations.

Asked what she had learned from making the documentary, filmed between 2017 and 2019, Lo said: “I had assumed cities with a lot of stray animals are inhumane or not taking care of their animals, but I found that it’s actually the exact opposite.”

“It’s cities that don’t have any stray animals that are actually betraying dogs and cats. It’s because it means that you’re getting rid of all of them. They’re going into graveyards or languishing in cells for the rest of their lives.”

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