At last, just what world cinema really needs right now: an exquisitely made film about street dogs in Istanbul, satiating that universal desire to see distant lands, coo over beautiful, noble animals, and satisfy the audience’s need to feel guilty about the misfortune of poorer, unluckier people. Director Elizabeth Lo’s first feature-length documentary ticks every box, while also providing a companion piece to Kedi, Ceyda Torun’s equally wonderful ode to Istanbul and Turkey’s feral felines. Together, the two films would make the perfect night in of viewing for quarantined animal lovers with frustrated wanderlust, especially anyone who loves the magnificently grotty Bosphorus metropolis.
Filmed seemingly with a low-slung camera held for great chunks of the running time at dog-head height, the film follows a gaggle of orphans both canine and human whose paths intersect and converge. A trio of Turkish-speaking refugees from Syria live in squatted building sites and doorways, and the camera stands back and watches while they huff glue from bags and space out. The actual protagonist is a yellow mutt named Zeytin, a Labra-something cross probably, with the most soulful eyes you’ll see in any movie this year. Dragging a slightly crook leg and sometimes palling up with dog friend Nazar – a dark, stockier lady of a certain age – Zeytin hangs with the Syrian boys and then saunters off to look for food when the fancy takes her, queen of the road, blithely unconcerned about cars.
The spliced-in grandiloquent quotes about dogs and philosophy and whatnot from Diogenes that pepper the film aren’t really necessary; the action speaks for itself. Perhaps because the star species here is more biddable and less camera-shy than the average cat, Lo’s film stays closer to its non-human heroine than Kedi did, creating a more lyrical, less anthropological study. That poetic vibe is richly enhanced by composer Ali Helnwein’s keening, cello-centric score that’s nimbly synched up to the editing. That said, nothing tops the vocal performance from Zeytin herself at the end, howling hauntingly along with a muezzin’s call to prayer.
• Stray is released on 26 March on digital platforms.