January 19, 2021

The Feedback: Elizabeth Lo's 'Stray'

From Elizabeth Lo's 'Stray,' a Magnolia Pictures release. Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Stray, Elizabeth Lo’s feature debut, takes you inside the world of three street dogs in Istanbul. Zeytin, Nasar and little Kartal lead viewers into parts of Turkish society that cut across social strata, from fashionable shopping streets to construction sites to abandoned buildings where refugee squatters bunk down for the night. Without anthropomorphizing her three leads, Lo shows their lives to be rich with encounters, both human and canine. With quotes from Diogenes, the Greek philosopher who based his code of conduct on his dog Antisthenes, Stray examines the age-old relationship between humans and canines in this city known for its benign treatment of ownerless dogs.

Stray screened as a work-in-progress at DocuClub LA in March 2020—just before California went into COVID-driven lockdown—and had its online festival premiere at Hot Docs in June. We caught up with Lo via email as she waited in Hong Kong for mainland China to reopen, where she hopes to film her next documentary. Stray opens on March 5 through Magnolia Pictures.

ABOUT THE FILM

 

DOCUMENTARY: The catalyst for Stray was the death of your childhood dog. Your original concept was to film stray dogs around the world. Why did you ultimately decide to concentrate on Turkey and, specifically, Istanbul?

ELIZABETH LO: Turkey has this fascinating history with stray dogs that feels almost spiritual. In the 1900s as the Ottoman empire was crumbling, a British diplomat in Istanbul fell to his death after being chased by a pack of stray dogs. In retaliation, the British government forced the sultan to round up any unattended animals and banish them to an island where they would starve. Shortly after this, huge fires broke out across the city because no dogs were there to warn people, followed by World War 1, so Istanbulites began to see the exiling of the dogs from their city as a curse on Turkey. After a century of government attempts to eradicate stray dogs from Istanbul in order to “modernize” the city, protests by the people for the rights of stray dogs to roam freely within the city led to those rights finally written into law in 2004. Now Turkey is one of the only countries in the world where it’s illegal to kill or capture any healthy stray dog. As someone from the US and Hong Kong, where dogs can only exist as pets or property, this was a radical and beautiful notion to me, and I wanted to document what life looked like there. 

D: How quickly did you discover Zeytin? What attributes made her suitable to take the lead role?

EL: Days after landing in Istanbul in 2018, I discovered Zeytin (and Nazar) in a busy underground tunnel as she streaked past me and co-producer Zeynep Koprulu. I remember wondering where two stray dogs could be headed in such a hurry. It turned out she was on the heels of Jamil and Halil, young men from Syria who were living as refugees in Istanbul. Her relationship with them and the makeshift family they formed on the streets was really moving to me. At the same time, Zeytin was very independent and had a rich life outside of her relationship to people—and that was important to the concept of our film: Stray was this attempt to recenter narratives outside of the human experience and see where that leads us. Zeytin was also one of the rare dogs that could stare straight past me and my camera no matter how close I got, and she had this face full of wrinkles and eyes that were youthful and old at the same time. 

D: You’ve said that Zeytin’s story would not be complete without showing her relationship with passers-by and the Syrian refugees. You’ve also said that finding the right balance between canine and human was the trickiest part of the edit. How did you navigate that?

EL: Fundamental questions haunted our film from the very beginning: Was this a story about humanity or about the canine experience? By trusting in the process of observing Zeytin’s life and holding the edit true to her experience within Istanbul, I realized that my question about whose story this was posed a false dichotomy. In a way, I was forced to surrender my preconceived notions about what it meant to be “human” or “nonhuman,” and in doing so, this portrait of Zeytin emerged as an expression of how deeply entwined we can be. 

D: You set out wanting to make a feature-length film, but after facing difficulties fundraising for such a subject, you accepted the possibility that this might have to be a short. Nonetheless, you cut a 20-minute showreel after your 2017 scout. If you hadn’t met Zeytin yet, what did this sample reel contain that convinced funders to step up?

EL: The sample conveyed visually and in pacing what I couldn’t articulate in words: the concept of allowing dogs to take the reins of a narrative, to experience time differently, and to weave between different parts of society in the way that not only showed the world in a defamiliarized light, but also a point of view that is imbued with a sense of personhood that isn’t quite human. I don’t know if that’s what struck funders about my sample footage, but I hope that’s the potential people saw in Stray

D: What message would you like viewers to take away from the film?

EL: I hope it offers a vision of life that expands our moral and perceptual consideration beyond our own class, culture and species through the power of film. And that viewers question their own country’s policies towards strays and consider what a more humane approach to interspecies co-existence can be—hopefully one that’s not defined by ideas of property, ownership or even citizenship. 

THE DOCUCLUB SCREENING 

 

D: Was DocuClub your first public screening?

EL: Yes, our first “public” screening took place in March 2020 at DocuClub. 

D: What expectations did you have going in? What were the central challenges in your film that you felt could benefit most from the DocuClub screening? 

EL: It was the first time we were showing it to people besides our friends and film team, so it was an opportunity to see how audiences responded to the film in general, because we knew it was a unique and strange vision of a documentary. It was gratifying that it turned out to be very positively received. 

D: What audience observations did you find most surprising and unexpected? 

EL: People picked up on a constructed ending that wasn’t exactly true to what had happened in real life. 

D: When you went back to the edit room, what were the key changes you made? 

EL: I changed the film’s ending back to the original ending, which was truer to reality even if it was bleaker.

D: What factors determined that your film was ready for your festival premiere?

EL: By the end of a year of editing and sometimes difficult feedback, I was finally ready to accept the idiosyncrasies of Stray and embrace the vision I had set out to make. Whether people liked it or not, I was proud to know I would be releasing a film that was created on my own terms without compromise, and that’s when I knew it was ready.

D: What were the most valuable takeaways from the screening?

EL: To never underestimate an audience’s sensitivity to the truth and authenticity. 

THE FESTIVAL CIRCUIT

D: Stray was supposed to premiere at Tribeca 2020, but after that festival was cancelled, the film debuted at Hot Docs, where it won a jury prize for Best International Feature. The film then went on to BFI London, San Diego Asian Film Festival, Gigon International Film Festival in Spain, Dokufest in Kosovo, DOC NYC, IDFA and other festivals and screening series [including the IDA Documentary Screening Series], where it won prizes all along the way. How was your experience at these virtual events? Were you able to engage with audiences in any meaningful way?

EL: I’m thrilled that Stray has had such a wide and varied virtual journey—which I didn’t expect at all—despite the disappointment of not being able to travel to these amazing festivals and events. I haven’t engaged with audiences as much as I’d like, beyond emails and messages over social media, but I’m grateful to all the programmers and moderators who have turned up for filmmakers, organizing virtual Q&As and gatherings that allow us to connect and speak about our films. 

D: Are there any festivals between now and its theatrical opening on March 5? What’s the plan and the hope for that theatrical release?

EL: Stray will play at MoMA on February 22 in The Future of Film Is Female program. Magnolia is also hosting two more special virtual screenings, which I’m really excited about: on January 15 (followed by a conversation with Florida Project director Sean Baker) and January 27 (with a panel moderated by critic Tamris Laffly and Inside of a Dog author Alexandra Horowitz). Stray will be released on March 5 at virtual and physical cinemas across the country. I don’t know what to expect, but I’m looking forward to finally being able to share the film widely. 

D: What advice would you offer to other filmmakers who’ve completed their films and are assessing their roll-out strategies at this time?

EL: I used to be really against the idea of virtual screenings and online festivals, but at this point, if you reject that, it seems tough to find a path forward until the pandemic is over. I feel like it’s better to move on to your next project than sit on a film that will be loved by people, even if it’s viewed on their televisions or laptops. I try not to think about what I’ve missed to release my first feature film in this way, because it’s better to keep going. 

 

Patricia Thomson is a longtime film journalist and a contributing writer for American Cinematographer.

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