Tuesday 23 March 2021

Who let the dogs out?: "Stray"

The documentary Stray is likely no more than a curio, all told - it's the dog-person equivalent of 1996's once-cheered, since-forgotten Microcosmos - but it at least has a go at making its audience view the world from a different angle. It opens with the first of a series of quotes from the pro-pooch philosopher Diogenes: "Human beings live artificially and hypocritically, and would do well to study the dog." The filmmaker Elizabeth Lo then takes it upon herself to do precisely that, locking onto a trio of pups prowling Istanbul, one of the few global cities where strays enjoy protected-species status, and tailing them - literally tailing, the camera rarely rising above what we must define as anus height - where'er they wander. That's all the film is: 72 minutes of tightly framed shots of dogs as they go about their daily dumb-mutt business. They chase after cats and cars; scuffle with other strays; reward themselves for their efforts with a nice chew on a discarded chicken bone. At one point, two strays are witnessed humping in the very middle of a Reclaim the Streets march; the spectacle becomes exponentially funnier once we learn that, in the human world, the march is taking place on Valentine's night. Insistently relegating those artificial and hypocritical humans to the background in both the frame and the sound mix, Stray might be positioned as a prologue to Kornél Mundruczó's remarkable White God of 2014: you see how these dogs might one day reclaim these streets themselves, if they ever had the numbers. But would they be inclined to? The notion of takeover implies some degree of scheming, a level of malevolence, and Lo's strays present as guileless, basic creatures. We would appear to have far less to fear from them than we might from the grim-faced policemen seen silently chaperoning that march, or the offscreen hardmen heard strongarming their fellow citizens into voting for nationalist parties.

That implies some sociological intent, yet Stray is chiefly distinguished by its crouched perspective. Lo shoots nose down, tail up, weaving in and out of passers-by in a way that would have been unthinkable in the days of, say, Jean Rouch and his cumbersome camera equipment. (It would have been fun to see some making-of footage in the end credits; more fun, I'd venture, than the two minutes of howling we actually get.) The idea, I suppose, is that there is something humbling in being a dog: you can't look down on anyone, because the only thing you have to look down on is the gutter. Early on, one stray falls in with a pack of street kids, occasioning a matter-of-fact shot of glue-huffing that appears to be the sole reason for the film's harsh-seeming 18 certificate. (Either that, or the BBFC have a threshold for visible dog anuses that was surpassed in the first five minutes.) All of which is to say this isn't an especially cuddly or sentimental film, and that you shouldn't fire it up expecting a true-life Marley & Me. These dogs are grimy and ungroomed; you can imagine them smelling something rotten. As someone whose approach to canines has vacillated between fond shrugging and full-on-Tom-Cruise-in-Magnolia, the novelty of being around them this intensely wore off very quickly, and I suspect even Diogenes would concede there's only so much profundity one can take away from a lingering close-up of a freshly laid turd. Still, credit to Lo for staying this close to her subjects for so long, and for not backing away in horror whenever they launch into vicious fights or take their ease in public green spots; I hope she got to take a long, hot soak with Clorox at the end of each day's shoot. Those human beings the philosopher was so down on may be difficult to live with, and far more complex to figure out, but they've arrived at another wisdom for the ages, pointedly unquoted here: lie down with dogs, and you're gonna get fleas.

Stray will be available to stream via Curzon Home Cinema and Dogwoof on Demand from Friday. 

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