How to live one day at a time

CITY girl. A mixed breed dog named Zeytin, resident of Istanbul. Photograph courtesy

SHE SQUINTS HER beautiful eyes and frowns gloriously. Her tan body is health and lithe, playful, watchful, vulnerable, tough. This is Zeytin, a mixed breed large dog in Istanbul, central to an extraordinary piece of filmography called Stray, made by Elizabeth Lo, which features on this year’s Encounters International South African Documentary Film Festival, which runs from 10-20 June 2021, online and at the Bioscope in Johannesburg.

Poetically premised on the observations of ancient Greek philosophers, Diogenes of Sinope and Themistius of Constantinople about the impeccable honesty of canine existence, the work is more than a documentary. It’s a conceptual essay on the perspective of stray dogs in Istanbul. In recent times, it has been declared illegal to euthanise or abuse dogs in Turkey and thus, in terms of this film, these exquisite animals form a special strata of society of their own, roaming the streets with dignity.

She will nuzzle the kind, bark at the greedy and bite scoundrels – as Diogenes said she would. But she takes us further: into the heart of homeless and drug-ridden youngsters in Istanbul, Syrian refugees, on adventures that skirt with busy traffic and take her the dockside. It’s a film that subtitles only the voices of passersby in the dog’s adventures and weaves string music with the discourse of human intersection, political protest and the calls of muezzins.

Implicitly, the work deals with the responsibility that the Turkish government has taken for the dogs, but it doesn’t go into detail. What happens when they need veterinary attention? ‘Our’ dog is confronted by others, who do not want to share the scant pickings of the street. She’s confronted by human beings who insult her, and others who love her unconditionally. Above all, the film is not about the pragmatics of dog care, but offers a more poetic gloss on the dignity of doghood and by implication, the complex simplicity of taking life one day at a time. It is a tonic on so many levels, particularly during these times of distress.

Stray is written and directed by Elizabeth Lo and features on the Encounters International South African Documentary Film Festival which runs from 10-20 June 2021, online and at the Bioscope in Johannesburg.

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