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MOVIES: Stray - Review (LFF 2020)

Experienced indie short film director Elizabeth Lo’s feature debut Stray follows a lone stray dog Zeytin through the city of Istanbul, where homeless dogs cannot be euthanized and are left to roam the streets, we see it interact with the city’s inhabitants, the people who live there and its fellow animal strays. Punctuated by chapters broken up with quotes, Stray feels like a real-time odyssey from start to finish, a true fly on the wall journey that makes the most out of inventive camera work to capture a real and authentic feel without the subject matter ever actually acknowledging that the camera was there.

The cinematography is impressive at times and Lo’s direction is certainly ambitious in this love-letter to dogs that adopts a comparatively simple premise. We get to meet a varied group of people as Zeytin happens across protests, and interacts with homeless refugees over the course of the film who earnestly aspire to take care of it, which itself was filmed over two years in Istanbul, going beyond the principal lead dog exploring multiple of its fellow species, but never as much as Zeytin. The camera acts as an observer throughout, never feeling like it is intruding on the animals lives which means a sense of forced observation is never really felt. This allows us to get an unfiltered look into the paths of the dogs and their actions, but it’s through their eyes that explore the cultural dynamic of the city, interacting with its inhabitants, its people and those who have come to Istanbul in search of a better lifestyle.

The camera stays ground level through most of the film, creating the ‘dogs eye view’ set-up that makes the most out of the relatively basic structure. This can lead to the lack of excitement at times as the film is comparatively slow paced when the dogs are not doing anything particularly interesting, but it’s balanced out by some carefully chosen footage that feels very pleasant and deliberately executed in a way that avoids large amounts of dialogue, so you only hear short snippets of conversation that give just enough insight into certain people’s lives. These dog-centric focus prevent the audience from learning about the subject in more depth, but Stray never loses its sense of perspective.

Stray is certainly something that can be classified as slow cinema in its genre and it doesn’t get where it’s going quickly but that is by no means a bad thing, with the deliberate heavy pace leaving audiences feeling emotional by the end even though its set-up feels like a world apart from a normal narrative, relying heavily on its exclusivity from a dogs' perspective but somehow finding a way to make it work.

Stray opts for a solitary and informative approach, but that doesn’t stop Lo from finding time to inject humour into the script as it progresses, helping it feel increasingly lively and energised when it wants to be, regardless of whether it is focusing on the loneliness of having the streets to wonder or the full freedom of exploration that comes with no law to stop you from doing so.

You can watch the trailer for Stray here.

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