“It Was Subversive, a Political Act, Giving Screen Time to a Scrappy Stray Dog”: Director Elizabeth Lo on Her Mesmerizing Tribeca Documentary, Stray
About the production philosophy behind Stray, her captivating and immersive documentary about stray dogs in Istanbul, director Elizabeth Lo says that her shooting decisions were “kind of left to the whims of a dog” (specifically, a mutt named Zeytin). Lo is perhaps being a bit modest here — there’s a tremendous amount of human skill, empathy, observational power and narrative shaping in her mesmerizing canine saga. But a giant strength of the film is its sense that it is indeed in sync with the rhythms of a dog, occupying an animal world while also being both smartly aware of and gently resistant to the human — and cinematic — urge to narrativize a dog’s story within an anthropocentric frame.
Stray is set entirely in the streets of Istanbul, and from its first moments it establishes an enveloping, tough aesthetic that’s very different than that other recent street-animal-in-Istanbul doc, Kedi. Lo’s camera follows Zeytin as she ambles through a city that, as Lo explains below, grants stray dogs a societal place and privilege that’s inconceivable to anyone living here in the States. Zeytin, traveling at times in a small pack of other dogs, drifts in and out of human situations — a Women’s Day street protest, a group of women discussing relationships at a cafe, or, in the most significant plot strand, the daily grind of a trio of Syrian immigrants who sleep in empty construction sites and form a very provisional family with the dogs. By following Zeytin’s perambulations, Lo, like a great street photographer, perceptively picks up on class strata and social division in Istanbul while also capturing moments of unexpected poetry. Suspense generates naturally, often — for me, at least — when Zeytin, with a dog’s Zen poise, will seemingly court danger by walking into oncoming traffic, or get into scraps with other, more menacing dogs. Human relationships, budding storylines, snatches of dialogue stimulate narrative interest, an impulse that is stoked when the lens catches Zeytin’s soulful gaze in apparent reaction. But just as quickly, Zeytin’s eyes will avert, Lo and her camera will move on, and a dog’s life continues. The film’s surging, transportive finale is entirely on a dog’s terms.
Lo was one of Filmmaker‘s 25 New Faces in 2015 off of her superb eight-minute New York Times Op Doc short, Hotel 22, which employed a similarly observational approach — here, in depicting the homeless denizens of a Silicon Valley bus line at night — to construct a mini-essay about class division and fraying social safety nets amidst the land of the tech giants. Stray is her first feature, and it was due to world premiere at the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival — a kind of now-phantom opportunity we discuss in our conversation below. Also in our dialogue: Istanbul’s history of stray dogs, how Lo acted as her own cinematographer, the challenges of making a doc that doesn’t slot into typical social justice categories, and how she created the liminal space between dog and human that Stray so artfully navigates. Stray is currently being repped for sales by Dogwoof.
Filmmaker: So tell me about the journey to make this film, and how you landed on its final iteration. I remember seeing a 20-minute or so showreel a couple of years ago.
Lo: I had the idea in 2015, and in 2016 is when I started really trying to preproduce it — applying for grants and so forth. Originally, I wanted to make a film about stray dogs around the world, almost kind of like Michael Glawogger’s Whores’ Glory. It would be an examination of how a particular species’s status can change so much given its cultural context. I looked at all the countries that had interesting relationships with stray dogs, and Turkey was of course one of them. I read about the history of stray dogs in Turkey and got really fascinated. I was captivated by stories like how, in the early 20th century, when the Ottoman empire was crumbling, there was a British diplomat who came to Istanbul, got chased by a pack of stray dogs, tripped and died. So the British government forced the Ottoman government to round up all their stray dogs and get rid of them. The Sultan at the time felt it was immoral to kill the dogs, so he exiled them to a neighboring island, where they starved to death, and the Istanbul residents could hear the howls of the dogs from the island. And then shortly after that the Balkan Wars happened, and World War 1 happened, and for the residents of Istanbul, exiling of the dogs felt like a curse on the city.
Over the next century, the government has tried to get rid of these stray dogs in an attempt to modernize, to Westernize — to become like Paris, London and Hong Kong, where there are no dogs on the street. But the people fought for the rights of stray dogs to stay and for them have rights that no other dogs in the world have. Like in Turkey, you’re not allowed to euthanize stray dogs,and you are not allowed to hold them in captivity. And if they pick them up to vaccinate them, they have to drop them off where they were picked up, which is like such a profound respect for an animal’s agency and belonging in a urban environment.
Filmmaker: So it’s more of a proactive stance for keeping dogs in the community as opposed to a failure of having animal shelters?
Lo: Yes. As I was getting into this topic, I realized that assumptions have always been that societies that have stray dogs are inhumane and are not taking care of their dogs. But it’s the complete opposite, that our relationship to dogs is informed by pet ownership and understanding animals as property, even as we love them. That we have to eradicate them from our streets is actually to me insane. When in Turkey I told people, “In the US or in China or in Hong Kong, if there are stray dogs and nobody wants to adopt them, they get killed,” they were horrified to hear that. The idea that stray dogs can just exist among us is something that we’ve morally reframed to be abhorrent. But coming to Turkey and understanding how they integrate dogs into their urban life, how they respect them and care for them communally, not individually, that showed me an alternative vision for how you can live in a society tolerant of interspecies life that’s not dictated by relationships of ownership.
Filmmaker: Istanbul was originally one going to be one segment of a larger film. How did it wind up being the focus?
Lo: Originally it was around the world and then it kind of narrowed down to just Turkey. I was interested in Turkey because, in 2017 when I went scouting, it was dealing with all these global issues — the erosion of democracy, the influx of refugees. They were struggling in the wake of terrorism. And so I was interested in seeing whether the peripheral gaze of a stray dog could take a pulse of what the society was going through. And then after I landed in Turkey, I went to different cities and followed different dogs around. But once I met Zeytin in Istanbul, she just stood out to all of us. She was one of the only dogs in our whole production who didn’t follow us back after we filmed with her. She had this radical sense of independence that I really valued. It spoke to what I felt was important about showing a dog’s life outside of just human human concerns, so Zeytin took over the narrative.
Filmmaker: So it’s not like you shot massive amounts of material and then decided to focus on Zeytin in the edit?
Lo: She was identified early on, but even after we identified her, we still went to the places that we had planned on going. We still amassed all this footage of other dogs. But then we returned to her and kept filming with her.
Filmmaker: And what was this like on a production level. Obviously, you can’t put a stray dog on a call sheet. How did you know where to find her each day? Did she return to different spots? Did you hire someone to track her 24/7?
Lo: We got sponsored by this company called Tractive GPS. They have these pet tracking collars that you only have to recharge the batteries every three days. So we would put them on Zeytin at the end of every night, or every morning, when we were done filming. We’d go to sleep, wake up the next morning and check our phones and we’d be able to see where Zeytin had gone at night and then where [she was] now. But in terms of not being able to put a dog on a call sheet, it was an adjustment because, you know, they’re stray dogs. They don’t do anything. They don’t have jobs or families or property. Their schedules are completely at their whims. Sometimes they do nothing at all, which I find really beautiful on a deep level because it’s like a rejection of industriousness and capitalism, right? They don’t perform any work. They have no economic output. But sometimes we would try, if they were doing nothing at all, like just hanging out on a street, sleeping the whole day, to wake them up with really delicious foods. But they had such a rich diet in the city. They were able to find their own food much better than whatever we could source for them. So they would just ignore our offerings. There was no way we could manipulate them, or try to get them to do what we wanted, and so after a while, very early on in the shoot process, we just decided that were just going to let the dogs do what they do, follow them, and see what happens to a film that’s kind of left to the whims of a dog.
Filmmaker: How many days did you shoot with Zeytin?
Lo: We shot six months with her, and then I went back a year-and-half later for a pick up shoot. We had hundreds of hours [of footage].
Filmmaker: Why did you go back? What did you need to get?
Lo: One of the things that was missing from our cut was that there were not more dogs in the city, which was not reflective of reality. It felt like Zeytin was quite solitary. And so when we went back, we truly just stayed with her, almost like 24 hours a day. And because in this pickup shoot, I was completely on my own with no crew so I could do that. [Zeytin] led us to more and more dogs. Scenes in the film, like where she’s getting attacked by some dogs, or joins a mob of dogs, those were from the pickup shoot.
Filmmaker: The time marker of that 18 months isn’t in the movie, right?
Lo: No, it’s not in the movie because her life hadn’t changed that much. It’s amazing that like a stray dog can just exist and live in a city.
Filmmaker: And you were entirely alone on this shoot?
Lo: For the pickup shoot I was entirely alone because I wanted the shoot to be truly, truly immersive with no call time and almost no breaks for lunch. I didn’t want to subject a crew member to that. And also I think there’s something about shooting alone. Time kind of changes. I could adjust completely to the dog’s sense of time.
Filmmaker: Were there ever any safety worries while shooting alone? I guess we see the dogs acting violently to each other, but we don’t see them act aggressively to humans.
Lo: Not at all. The dogs in Turkey and Istanbul are super well socialized because they’re treated well by the general population. Also the dogs that manage to survive, they are very socially and emotionally intelligent dogs. And so I never felt in danger. Sometimes, as a lone woman, if I was filming alone in Istanbul I would get harassed by bystanders. But the interesting thing is when I was with the dogs — and I only realized this retroactively when I was looking at the footage — [I would see that] Zeytin was actually protecting me. Shortly before the trash scene, where the dogs are fighting over a bone, she gets up and starts walking to the camera and barking. At the time I didn’t realize what she was doing, But there was a guy talking to me, bothering me, behind the camera. And that was something I noticed a lot with all the stray dogs that I filmed with — it felt like they channeled whatever I was feeling and expressed it. Like, if I was annoyed with people around me, they would become more aggressive to the people around me. I think that’s something that’s really unique to dogs — they evolved with us, they can read our emotions.
Filmmaker: That was something I wanted to ask about — what sort of relationship developed with the dogs over time?
Lo: I developed a lot of respect for these dogs and affection and love for them. Sometimes they would follow me back to my little motel after shooting, and something they wouldn’t. Sometimes they’d get distracted by something and leave me. I love that relationship — whenever they were with me, it was purely by choice because I interested them in that moment. But they also had no responsibility towards me — they could leave me at any moment.
Filmmaker: You acted as your own cinematographer. Tell me about you choice of camera gear and how you developed your visual approach.
Lo: We did a lot research into filming dogs at dog level while keeping them in focus. We ended up getting a grant from Rooftop Films, their TCS [camera grant]. That enabled us to start official production sooner than we thought, and it gave us access to these vintage Cooke lenses that are really soft and have this like antique look. The nostalgia that comes from those lenses was important to me because documenting the lives of these stray dogs felt in a sense like time travel. Turkey has a very special relationship with stray dogs, but you never know the precariousness of the status of a certain population within a society. It can change overnight. Once a society changes and believes that a city should no longer have stray dogs, there’s no turning back. Like, there’s no way you could convince New Yorkers that we should allow stray dogs back onto the streets. And so this film to me felt like documenting a modern time that has some somehow slipped from a more ancient time when we co-existed with animals everywhere. The Cooke lens is, I felt like it lended itself to that. And then in terms of a rig, we tested many different setups and I ended using a DJI Ronin because that was available in Turkey to rent. And then I used an Easyrig, which is a contraption that you wear as a vest and the camera kind of hangs off of it. The camera was an ARRI Amira — ARRI also gave us a grant. So, I kind of just crouched low and, and walked with the camera at [the dogs’s] height. It was really backbreaking.
Filmmaker: The dogs in your film are so expressive, and your closeups are incredible. The viewer can project so much emotion into a closeup of a dog, and so much meaning to cuts between human and dog. There are questions, then, about anthropomorphism and points of view and how much of a dialogue between human and animal you’re suggesting or not. Could you talk about the grammar you developed in the edit, or perhaps your rules, when cutting between the dogs and the humans?
Lo: Part of the goals of the film was to try to inhabit a dog’s gaze and represent a dog’s life. In a way, that was subversive, a political act — giving screen time to a scrappy stray dog that lives outside of human matters. But I also recognized eaerlly on that because of technological limitations — me with an Easyrig and a gimbal following the dogs — it was not possible to fully inhabit a dog’s gaze. Also because I’m a human, the film was always going to be a mediation, an idea of representing a dog. And so I made peace with the fact that the film was going to occupy this liminal space between human and dog. And so even in the editing, I switched. Most of the time I’m with the dog, but sometimes it switches to the humans, like when the women are having a conversation about their marriage. Obviously that’s shot at, at their eye level while the dogs are listening. I kind of felt like I used the human moments, the drama, sort of the way that most most of films use animals — as cutaways. So that was the logic of how we approached it, and Ernst Karel’s sound design accentuated this, the feeling that even as the human dialogue about love, Instagram, and stuff like that is very engrossing, that those things that concern us are brief moments of reprieve for human audiences. Thedogs ultimately take over the narrative in terms of sound — the sound is distorted because the dogs don’t care that much.
Filmmaker: What were the biggest challenges on a documentary producing level of getting this film funded and made?
Lo: It was a difficult film to pitch to people. One of the funders I talked to said, “There’s a threefold problem with this film. It’s about an issue that very few people care about, stray dogs. And your interpretation of this issue that stray dogs should be be allowed to exist is also very obscure. So, it’s an obscure issue and then an obscure take on an obscure issue. So it was really tough. I’m really grateful to the organizations that did support us, like Rooftop Films, the BAVC National MediaMake Fellowship, and ARRI. Apple funded us a little bit with gear, and Tractive GPS. And then just like savings and doing it really scrappily because I edited it and shot it. And producers and co-producer who were really generous with their time.
Filmmaker: So, the film was selected by Tribeca, which of course is not happening for live audiences this week. You’re screening for industry, but privately — outside of the festival’s industry portal. What’s that like, and how are you processing this moment?
Lo: It’s scary to think that like, even in the best-case scenario, if this film gets some kind of online distribution through some kind of streaming platform that I might not as a filmmaker at the end of this five-year filmmaking journey be able to see this film with a live audience over the next year. I might never me able to experience Stray in a room full of a hudnred people. But I guess that’s a small problem in the world compared to everything else that’s happening. So, I’m just taking it for what it is.