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On Sunday, Feb 21st, we were joined by director Elizabeth Lo via Zoom to discuss her documentary feature film, STRAY. We are now offering this filmmaker Q&A to view for free through September 30, 2021. This free livestream event does NOT include the screening of the film STRAY.
“I nuzzle the kind, bark at the greedy, and bite scoundrels.”
- DIOGENES, 363 B.C.
The impetus for STRAY is personal. When my childhood dog died, I felt a quiet need to suppress my grief at his passing. I was shocked that something as personal as how my heart responds to the death of a loved one could be shaped by an external politics that defined him or “it” as “valueless.” As my grief evolved, I also saw 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.
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. 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. Every free-roaming dog today is an emblem of resistance — living manifestations of compassion in the face of intolerance.
I first met Zeytin, our canine protagonist, as she hurried past me in a busy underground tunnel in Istanbul. Intrigued by her sense of purposefulness, I chased after her. She was quickly joined by Nazar, another street dog. As it turned out, they were on the heels of a group of young men from Syria — Jamil, Halil and Ali — who were living on the streets as refugees in Turkey. I began to follow them over months as they found shelter in construction sites and quiet sidewalks together. Despite the harshness of their circumstances, the dogs and boys had formed a makeshift family unit. The warmth and love emanating from their interdependent bond was deeply moving to me. Without the companionship of the dogs, the Syrian boys would have felt adrift in a city not their own — and perhaps it was the same for Zeytin and Nazar. Zeytin, an inconspicuous stray dog, had led me 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 are relegated to the peripheries of society.
eytin quickly emerged as the focus of our production because she was one of the rare dogs we followed who did not inadvertently end up following us back. To the very last day of shooting, she remained radically independent. In Zeytin I saw a character who could fully envelop us within her own nonhuman will — a quality that was vital to a story about dogs who, unlike pets, are not only defined by their relationship to humans.
For six months, from 2018 to 2019, I followed Zeytin with a camera and stabilizer every day while one of three indispensable Turkish co-producers on the film (Ceylan Carhoglu, Zeynep Köprülü, and Zeynep Aslanoba) would record sound on a bi-directional microphone to pick up overheard conversations. At the end of each night of filming, we’d place pet-tracking GPS collars onto Zeytin or Nazar so we’d be able to locate and find them the next morning. We learned very quickly that it was impossible to plan or schedule the lives of our stray subjects. Surrendering to their will, my producer Shane Boris and I decided STRAY would be an experiment in what would happen if we left a film’s narrative up to dogs.
I followed Zeytin as she traversed across class, ethnic and gender lines in a way only stray dogs can. As an outsider who didn’t speak Turkish, my understanding of the human world around me felt as distant and deep as my canine subjects’. Without language, I was increasingly sensitized to minute gestures and expressions while remaining a constant outsider. I felt dog-like — a liminal identity that allowed me into conversations and spaces that I may have ordinarily been barred from.
I was perpetually crouched low as I filmed at dog’s height, a strenuous but literal way to challenge conventional modes of seeing and being in the world. Works like the ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes who modeled his way of life around street dogs, John Berger’s landmark essay “Why Look at Animals” (1977), or Donna Haraway’s writings that call for the flattening of our interspecies hierarchy played crucial roles in the conceptualization of this film. Their works speak to the need of recognizing the destructive nature of our anthropocentrism. STRAY is my attempt to visually and aurally recenter the world around a nonhuman gaze. I had the honor of working with Ernst Karel, the sound designer behind such seminal films as Leviathan (2012) and Sweetgrass (2009), to develop an aural language for how to cinematically represent canine hearing: a world in which human dialogue becomes radically secondary to heightened frequencies, and where Ali Helnwein’s distorted classical score is set against the gritty, lived experiences of those whom society has left behind.
My journey through Turkey traversed a socio-cultural terrain in which for a moment, one nation became 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 its legitimate citizens. Through STRAY, I hope to continually push the boundaries of the cinematic medium in order to explore and challenge unequal states of personhood — to expand viewers’ circles of moral and perceptual consideration beyond their own class, culture, and species.