Elizabeth Lo directs a philosophical look at a dog’s place in the world, and among humans.
Elizabeth Lo opens her short but powerful dogumentary Stray with a classical quote positioning dogs as the measure of “true living.” Her tail of three canines living in Turkey is marked by similar quotes, establishing a long history of using dogs as a companion to philosophy (and philosopher companions) that stretches from the Classical Mediterraenian, through Donna Haraway’s concept of “significant otherness,” to this film.
Lo’s documentary is a detailed exercise in understanding. Given that the three main “characters” and the director have an insurmountable language barrier between then, Lo works delicately to wag a narrative together from the dogs’ daily lives. Though the footage at first feels mundane, like any good boy video you might see on Facebook, we very quickly sense that Lo is after something deeper.
There are things she shows us directly. The film confronts Turkey’s once violent history with dogs and shows how it has reformed into a haven from euthenasia. And Lo makes it a point to also tell us there’s been renewed efforts to expel strays from Turkey. By the end of her film, the dogs are explicitly shown to be sites of resistance and an integrated part of Turkish urban life.
She elegantly underscores this by training us to notice the people and conversation in the dog’s implicit periphery. We first become privy to snippets of passing conversations, just as a dog might walking through the city. Yet the longer we follow the dogs, the more we hear about the people in their lives. Social strays themselves, they are unhoused youths, wage laborers, and refugees.
By simply asking us to watch, to sit and stay, Lo draws unstated but nonetheless poignant political parallels between the dogs and their human kin. As turmoil from Erdoğan’s government brews in the streets, we empathize with human and animal struggles to survive. In doing so, she asks us to consider what ‘home’ and ‘shelter’ mean for us on material and emotional levels.
By the end of our hour or so with these dogs, we understand a bit more, in that we have experienced something new about understanding. We’ve learned how to take in implicit and explicit contexts. We’ve bonded with “characters” that are radically other than us. And we are left to wonder: if we can bond with such wholly different creatures, what is stopping us from being kin with different people as well?
Stray is available on VOD starting March 7th.