Synopsis: The lives of stray dogs in Istanbul is documented.
Zeytin’s collaboration with director Elizabeth Lo was filmed in Istanbul, Turkey during six months in 2018- 2019. Zeytin, whose name means Olive in Turkish, is homeless and lives on the streets of Istanbul where she scrounges for food. But she never loses her dignity or gentle nature. Zeytin is a young Anatolian Shepherd. In a city of over fifteen million people, she is among the nearly 130,000* plus stray dogs who live in Istanbul.
Zeytin is shown navigating crowds and heavy traffic, visiting with dog friends, trying to avoid fights with other dogs and –painfully — searching for food. I’m relieved to report that she doesn’t die in the documentary. We see food vendors shoo her away (the tulumba-which are like churros- that she was eyeing looked really good) and outside diners ignore her. But there are also residents who take pity on the strays. Sanitation workers parcel out bones from garbage and a group of security guards put out scraps at a construction site. I wondered if Zeytin had been someone’s dog. Animal welfare activists report that many of the strays are discarded pets.
The movie is segmented with quotes from Diogenes, a circa 300 B.C. philosopher. He says things like: Dogs and philosophers do the greatest good and get the fewest rewards. I certainly agree about the dog part. Here is another sample of Diogenes’ greatest good: What I like most is wine that belongs to others. Fair enough!
I could’ve used a few explanatory intertitles because, while we see plenty of Zeytin’s daily life, you have to just piece together who the people are: Activists putting out scraps? What’s the deal with the older guys building fires in the park? What’s that protest about? We also overhear conversations around the city. At one juncture we see an unhappy looking young man and woman sitting outside at a cafe table late at night while Zeytin is sprawled out near them. The man keeps insisting that his Instagram following of an ex means nothing. Sure. Zeytin probably hears a lot of this sort of thing, people’s day to day concerns. Of course she has her own troubles. Sometimes she gets a pat, but usually no food from passersby.
There are a group of people who do take an interest in Zeytin. We see a group of teen boys greet her and coax her over to a construction site where they shelter from the elements. And sniff glue. They tell a security guard who warns them to move on that they want one of the pups of a stray who has been hanging around. He says, No. You can’t even take care of yourselves. Late one night they snatch the pup and tote it around with them. The poor creature looks petrified and ventures over to a sleeping Zeytin for security at one point.
Director Elizabeth Lo said she wanted the film’s viewpoint to be part of a “decolonizing tool.” Lo, who is American, asks non-Turkish audience members to consider the validity of Turkish attitudes to strays. An early non-Diogenes text card informs us that in 1910 a campaign of exterminating stray dogs began. But now, euthanizing of strays is not allowed. There is a program that vaccinates and sterilizes and then ear tags the dogs before returning them to the streets. Unfortunately, the canines are not released with any meal vouchers.
Have you seen Kedi? Kedi (cat in Turkish) documents the lives of stray cats in Istanbul. It wasn’t hard for director Ceyda Torun to find possible subjects; there are more than a 160,000** stray felines in the city. She reports that “dogs’ lives are infinitely more tragic.” How so? Well, cats have a few survival advantages over the dogs. They are small and typically need less than 300 calories a day. (A Golden Retriever-sized dog will need at least 1,200 calories/day, especially when they are wandering miles to look for food.) If a kitten has a mother who knows how to hunt, she will teach them. (Domesticated dogs don’t have the hunting skills of coyotes, wolves etc) And Turkish culture has a generally cat positive bent. (There are people who, due to religious teachings, consider dogs unclean.) The city’s cats might consider that dogs are a problem. They keep a wary eye on the stray dogs, who seem to enjoy chasing them.
The film follows the teen boys when Zeytin keeps company with them. The kids look really miserable even though they are sometimes high. Sometimes they locate a food charity cart and run to it. They share food with the purloined pup in one scene. Someone approaches (a production assistant, an aid worker??) and asks one of the kid’s his name and where he’s from. He says he’s Halil and came from Syria two or three years ago. I wondered if he had been homeless the whole time and if he had had a chance to go to school or work. Ironically, people can be arrested for sleeping on the streets. This is one problem the dogs don’t have. (A quick look online reveals that Turkey has more refugees– 3.6 million– than any other country. Most are from war-torn Syria.)
Throughout Stray, Zeytin soldiers along in a placid fashion. Her dog ways are interesting to observe and she has a lovely personality. But none of the strays ever look relaxed. Some lucky ones may have a patron who feeds them well everyday and brings them to a vet, if necessary. And those dogs, I have to admit, wouldn’t want to change places with non-strays around the world who sit all day outside tethered to a chain or spend ten hours a day in a crate because their guardians don’t want them potentially messing up the house while they’re at work.
Be a good human and if you have a dog, cuddle on the couch with them and a bowl of popcorn and see how they like watching the busy, barking street dogs. Meanwhile, your well-fed cat can stare judgmentally at the two of you from across the room.
* 128,000 stray dogs and 162,000 stray cats ** are 2018 figures from the city of Istanbul.
P.S. For more information on Istanbul’s stray dogs click here.
For a look at Syrians in Turkey see here.
Movie Loon Movie Review Shortcut:
Cut to the Chase: An imperfect, but engrossing movie for dog lovers and armchair travelers.
Humor Highlight: With her dad, a toddler girl approaches laid-back Zeytin.