EXCLUSIVE: Filmmaker Makes Her Feature Documentary Debut with ‘Stray’

Elizabeth Lo, director of STRAY, a Magnolia Pictures release. © Ryan Nethery. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.


Front Row Features

HOLLYWOOD—Elizabeth Lo has achieved an extraordinary feat in her debut feature documentary “Stray,” telling a story of Turkey’s ubiquitous stray dogs entirely from the canines’ point-of-view.

Filmed over a course of three years, the documentary takes viewers on a journey with three strays in the ancient bustling city of Istanbul amidst a sea of humans and vehicular traffic. Mutts Zeytin, Nazar and Kartal are featured, with the expressive, independent and resourceful female Zeytin clearly the star.

Lo lowers the camera down to the animals’ perspective of their world, with humans playing a secondary role in the background, where viewers witness a women’s rights march, overhear conversations between adults, observe the dogs receiveing an occasional pat on the head from a child or other passerby, as well embedding with a group of young Syrian refugees who spend most of their days scrounging for food and getting high sniffing glue in half-constructed buildings, while trying to evade law enforcement.

Originally from Hong Kong, the Los Angeles-based Lo visited Istanbul several times between 2017-2019 to film the dogs, where she fitted them with GPS collars so she and her crew could find them and record their daily routines. That meant following the dogs into some very precarious places, including the middle of a busy thoroughfare with cars whizzing by, into unoccupied buildings with the refugees, through crowded marketplaces and by the seaside. Lo peppers in philosophical quotes from Diogenes to modern day dog experts throughout.

At the opening, Lo reveals to the viewer that Turkey tried to annihilate stray dogs since 1909, which led to mass killings of the animals for decades but subsequent protests have led the government to amend its approach where it is now illegal to euthanize or hold captive any stray dog, so these animals co-exist on the streets with humans. They are each tagged on the ear so authorities can keep tabs on them.

Lo’s work has been broadcast and showcased internationally, including at the Sundance Film Festival, Tribeca Film Festival, Hot Docs, True/False, BAM Cinemafest, New York Times Op-Docs and PBS’ POV. She was named one of the “25 New Faces of Independent Film” by “Filmmaker Magazine” in 2015 and was featured in the 2015 Saatchi & Saatchi New Directors’ Showcase at Cannes Lion. Her short films have played at 100 film festivals. “Strays” is her first feature film.

Magnolia Pictures’ “Stray” launches in virtual cinemas beginning Friday March. 5

Front Row Features: Do you feel like stray dogs are otherworldly, almost like they embody the souls of the dead?

Elizabeth Lo: Yes, they are very mystical and mythical creatures. They lay claim to their land and their city. They’ve survived as puppies on the streets. The ones that you encounter are socialized.  They can read human emotions so well. I believe they can read people’s boundaries. They know who likes them and who doesn’t. That’s how they’ve managed to thrive.

FRF: When you first visited Turkey, were you specifically planning to research this topic or were you inspired to make a documentary from what you witnessed there?

Lo: I’ve only been to Turkey during production so my impression of Turkey is very much defined by where the stray dogs hang out. I haven’t been to any of the tourist sites. I had researched Turkey and its relationship to stray animals before setting out. It was our first destination of what was originally going to be a global study of the status of stray dogs in a cultural context. Once we landed in Turkey, it was so rich already as a country in the dogs that we found, so we decided to set the entire film there but also to set the entire film around Zeytin’s life and her relationship with (fellow stray) Nazar.

FRF: The film goes beyond the stray dogs to reveal the story of this group of young Syrian refugees, who are trying to survive in this foreign environment. The story is told through the dogs’ perspective. Was that decided from the outset—to tell the story from the animals’ point-of-view?

Lo: When I conceived the film—and I still believe the film is very much about the dogs and their lives and canine culture—but I think in making a film about stray dogs in Turkey at this time, inevitably, because stray dogs occupy these public spaces, the kinds of populations that they encounter are going to be about people—whether it’s women fighting for their rights on the streets or the refugees who are trying to make a living and seeking shelter in Turkey, that there are going to be other marginalized people.

For me, it was always a balance. Originally, people would ask me, “Who’s story is this? Is this about humanity or is this about dogs?” It always was a struggle for us to articulate whose story this was because, in the end, what I discovered, it was our histories that are so intertwined as a species on a genetic level, in terms of how we co-evolved with each other. But, also, in terms of our relationships with dogs today and how the stray dogs are living independent lives from human owners, but they’re always very much one foot in human society. Even though they’re not understanding all the conversations these dogs are eavesdropping on, they’re very interested yet also not interested.

I realized this question of whether (the film) is about humanity or dogs was a false dichotomy. It comes from a cultural perspective that separates us—the human and the non-human, but actually we’re still so connected. I was interested in following a dog and seeing where that dog would take us and it took us into these relationships with people that say a lot about the state of the world, as well as the state of Turkey and humans, in general.

There’s this author, Alexandra Horowitz, who writes that dogs are the greatest anthropologists because they’ve spent their entire lives observing us, living around us, whether they’re pets or not.

FRF: These strays in Istanbul appear to all be tagged. Is that so the authorities can keep tabs on them and make sure they’re not absconded with?

Lo: Yes. When the dogs are picked up to be vaccinated against diseases, they have to be dropped back off where they were found. I was so struck by that profound respect, on a legal basis, for non-human rights, and the rights of these dogs to not be displaced. This doesn’t always happen in practice but, at least, in their laws, it’s written. In Turkey, they’re not allowed to euthanize healthy stray dogs or hold them in captivity. You can’t even put them in a shelter if they’re healthy.

FRF: Do the authorities spay and neuter these animals?

Lo: Yes, they do, to manage the population, but Zeytin and Nazar aren’t.

FRF: You used GPS collars to keep track of these dogs’ location. Was it always just these three dogs, or did you lose track of any of the dogs you were following?

Lo: We actually filmed in two other cities—Kars and Bodrum. In total, we followed three sets of dogs. The dogs from the other cities are in deleted scenes on the DVD or will function as short films.

What made Zeytin stand out was her ability to be unfazed by the camera—which I feel was a rare ability. All of the other dogs we filmed would follow us back during production, which defeated the premise of the film, which is: where does a non-human take you when I surrender my desires as a storyteller as a person, and not impose my will on these dogs. (Zeytin) didn’t allow me to do that because she was so stubborn, which is why she emerged as the star of the film. We would follow her and she’d take us into the cracks and crevices of the city.

FRF: Did you have to resist petting or hugging her?

Lo: No, definitely not. I’d pet her and hug her as much as I wanted. I’m not of the school of as a documentary filmmaker I feel like I’m an objective observer. I very much am a person, a human, present, and I feel like those are my priorities. Me being engaged with Zeytin in a warm way was typical to everyone around me that were engaging with her. It wasn’t anything out of the ordinary for me to be closely and physically bonded with her.

FRF: When you were shooting scenes in crowds, what did people make of you?

Lo: A lot of people were confused. What my Turkish producer told me is if you grow up with this stray animal culture in your city, you take it for granted that this is the way things are. It’s not until you move out of Turkey and you go to a city like Los Angeles, where it’s only pet dogs or no dogs at all, that what your city did was a really rare and unique thing. People would ask us why we were bothering to document what, to them, was so mundane but, to me, so extraordinary.

There were times when people would ask me a lot of questions and bother me during production. There’s a scene where Zeytin, in the middle of a very busy street, begins barking and walking towards me. I only realized in post-production that she had sensed my annoyance with this man, off-camera, who was asking me all these questions while I was filming. She could read my body language and she was trying to defend me.

There were so many instances like that that I realized in post-production and didn’t understand in the field, that she was observing me the whole time as much as I was observing her, and reading my innermost thoughts, in a way.

FRF: How cooperative were the authorities? Did you have to get permits?

Lo: Yes, we had to get blanket film permits to film in the city. It was very interesting to see how the mood of the police changed from 2017, when Turkey was having a lot of social and political turmoil—coming out of the wake of terrorist attacks and the rise of authoritarianism. Things were very tense then. But when we returned in 2018, it felt very different—the mood of the city.

That also was one of the goals of the film. I wanted to see if the peripheral gaze of stray dogs could take a pulse of human society. I’ve always been of the belief that the view from the periphery is always more accurate than the view from the center. “Stray” was partly a vehicle for that.

FRF: Viewers will probably wonder what happened to those young refugees who befriended these dogs. The last we see of them in the film, they’re getting arrested.

Lo: Forty-eight hours after they were arrested, they were released. They told us this was quite routine for them. People would call and complain about their presence on the streets sometimes and the police would take them to prison, which is a form of systematic harassment so the streets are not so comfortable for them. I haven’t been able to stay in in touch with the (three main boys) but my Istanbul-based producer will occasionally see them in the usual places that they were hanging out.

FRF: What would you like to see happen with the strays? Should things change or should it stay the way it is now?

Lo: In the West, we tend to think of cultures and cities that see stray dog populations as a way of not taking care of them or being inhumane. But, over the course of production, what I realized is that it’s the exact opposite. It’s actually terrifying that our streets in Los Angeles, New York, London or Hong Kong are void of gods. It’s so natural for them to live on our periphery, to live off our trash and to communally be taken care of. When I see the model of integration of stray dogs into the city that is happening in Turkey, and the laws that are there to protect them, from being persecuted simply for being a dog, which is basically what happens in our cities, it seems so simple. Why aren’t dogs just allowed to exist?

If you gave it time, dogs, over generations, would become really well-socialized. They’d understand how to navigate traffic. They wouldn’t be rabid and biting everyone. It was never the case in Turkey. So, I hope the film functions as a decolonizing tool, to ask viewers to undo their assumptions of what they thought of what is right and wrong about scenario, and question their own cultures, and how we relate to animals, and what we do to police the bodies of animals. Also, I want viewers to see how we point fingers at other cultures for doing the exact opposite.

For me, that was the process I went on as an outsider to Turkish culture and, of course, as a person who cares deeply about animals, it was really eye-opening to get to know another culture and a different way of life that I think is superior.

FRF: Do you have a dog?

Lo: Currently, I don’t live with one. It’s really sad. I remember coming back from Turkey where I could engage with dogs all the time; I love dogs. I love having my experience of life grounded by the non-human presence that undercut all the drama that you’re going through. Dogs are so Zen. Amongst all the traffic and the human drama like the couples arguing around her, Zeytin doesn’t care, and I really miss that perspective in my life. I wish that I lived in a society or city where I could go out, without the responsibility of ownership, because I used to travel so much, to be able to engage with other species and love them but not in a way that is based on this pet-ownership paradigm.