Interview With The Empathetic Elizabeth Lo (Filmmaker)

“Oppression of the nonhuman will eventually find its way to the human, from the poor to the middle class, from the non-citizen to the citizen”

Director Elizabeth Lo opens up about the inspiration behind her award-winning film, storytelling through a nonhuman gaze and the responsibility she feels to her audience.

The latest addition to filmmaker Elizabeth Lo’s ever-expanding body of work, has been a hit on festival circuit across the globe – leaving tails wagging on and off screen. 

It goes without saying that there are no shortages of differences between dogs and humans, notable examples being the language or the customs we partake in when marking our territories (a lot could be learned from the canine approach), but we do inhabit the same spaces. ‘Stray’ is a documentary that deconstructs the invisible barriers between both worlds, allowing us to explore Turkey in a unique and perspective-altering way.

Shot over the course of three years, ‘Stray’ follows the lives of street dogs – Zeytin, Nazar and Kartal – as they navigate the culturally rich, politically charged and visually stunning city that is Istanbul. We are also given an insight into the harsh realities of Syrian refugees children as their experiences and that of the dogs, often interact and overlap, creating a compassionate bond between the groups.

The film has achieved many deserved accolades and now, through an insightful conversation with Elizabeth Lo we are given the chance to appreciate the lived-experiences, thought process and compassion that delivered it to the world.

Congratulations on all of the awards that Stray has received. Are you at all surprised by this reception?

We didn’t expect Stray to win such a big prize so early in its festival life, so getting the top jury prize at Hot Docs was very affirming. Most recently, it’s been gratifying for a smaller film like Stray to be shortlisted by the IDA Documentary Awards and be recognized by the documentary industry. I know how hard it is for films to be seen, so I feel very grateful to Dogwoof and Magnolia Pictures for making sure that people are aware of Stray.

How would you describe the film in three words?

A nonhuman gaze. 

What compelled you to tell this story?

It came from a very personal place. My childhood dog, Mikey, had passed away, and I always felt like he deserved more in life. I decided to make a film that gave narrative time and space to beings like him – lives that aren’t normally seen as worthy of that kind of attention. Much like Virginia Woolf’s Flush, I knew I wanted Stray to be told entirely and truly from a dog’s perspective – and not an anthropomorphic projection using animals as a vehicle as so many other films have done – but truly be about trying to use the medium of film to represent a dog’s life.

The immediate comparison to be made when watching the film is that of the position of stray dogs and the most ostracised in our society. Would you draw the same comparison?

To me, it’s truly two sides of the same coin. I think when we talk about hierarchies of power and perceived powerlessness, cruelty at the peripheries will always come to haunt the center. Oppression of the nonhuman will eventually find its way to the human, from the poor to the middle class, from the non-citizen to the citizen. I don’t like the observation that the dogs in the film are somehow treated better than their human companions – focusing on that feels like missing the point, and gives legitimacy to the idea that certain beings should be held up above others just because of their species, gender, race, or citizenship status, which is exactly the kind of destructive, dominant narrative that the film is trying to resist.  

There’s a really strong sense of humanity in you when you speak about the human condition. Have you always been like this?

I’m not sure why I’m drawn to these stories, but maybe it’s a combination of growing up in Hong Kong where inequality is extreme and receiving a liberal education, and never growing out of my sense of people’s . Being exposed to anti-colonial narratives like Things Fall Apart by Achebe or Grendel (that situates you in the perspective of the monster instead of the “hero” Beowulf) in school affected my worldview a lot – these types of books taught me to question dominant narratives, and perhaps not growing up in the United States also helped me to not take Western systems of thought about who or what worldview matter as the only truths. 

How have you been coping with the effect the pandemic has had on everyday life and has it effected your ability and desire to create?

It’s been surreal to see governments not heed scientists and not care about its citizens, and to see acts of self-preservation – like mask wearing or quarantining – be twisted into a politicized statement. After I realized the pandemic was going to go on for a long time in the United States and that it would be ethically really difficult to shoot without daily tests of both the crew and subjects, I decided to move back home to Hong Kong, where COVID-19 is much more under control – and where I could feel like I could continue to responsibly make independent films

Does dealing with such heavy topics in your films take a mental toll on you?

I think the process of editing the footage and feeling like I’m contributing by getting the story right – conveying a situation to a lay audience who is not at all convinced or concerned about an issue compellingly – is how I process and cope with the heaviness. I realize it is an extreme privilege to be in a position to be able to tell and record these stories, so I feel a lot of responsibility to both the participants of these films and also my audiences. I hope that each film is a mental paradigm.

Was it more difficult working with animals than humans? I know that you already have a lot of experience with dogs (I hope your dog Jack is doing well!)

Not at all, working with all the dogs of Stray across Turkey is one of the best experiences of my life, and I wish I could replicate it for every future film. (Jack is also a rescue! Despite her size, she was indispensable in helping me figure out what rigs worked and didn’t with dogs during my test shoots, so I’ll always be grateful to her help in the making of Stray :))

Was there an audition process for the dogs or was it a case of working with what was available?

Zeytin emerged as one of the only stray dogs who didn’t inadvertently follow us back after extensive filming – so she really embodied the independent, nonhuman gaze that we were seeking to envelop audiences in: a canine existence that wasn’t dictated by human ownership or will. She also could look straight past me no matter how close I got to her face with my camera, and that was a rare quality – perhaps she even possessed an un-self-conscious, star quality just like certain humans have.

The interactions between the dogs and the refugee children was so organic. Did you facilitate their coming together?

That relationship definitely predated my arrival in Istanbul. Zeytin and Nazar lead me to the young men. Their on-and-off again relationship with the boys was really compelling to me. The Syrian boys had this profound desire to take care of the dogs, which I’m sure had to do with how the dogs’ presence in the boys’ lives created a sense of belonging on the streets despite being displaced in a country not their own.

How important was minimal dialogue to the film?

I think it being largely dialogue-free was important to the film because the dogs aren’t hanging onto our every word, so the audience shouldn’t either. In part, the film is seeking an older language – based on body gestures, sounds, and calls – that goes beyond our human emphasis on the verbal.

How were you and your team able to deliver such a phenomenal experience through sound?

I had the privilege of working with composer Ali Helnwein who composed those dizzying strings set against the rich, ambient soundscape created by sound designer (and director) Ernst Karel – who is behind such films as Leviathan and Sweetgrass. I worked with Ernst to develop an aural language for how to cinematically represent canine hearing: a world in which human dialogue becomes radically secondary to heightened frequencies, and where Ali Helnwein’s distorted classical score is set against the gritty, lived experiences of those whom society has left behind.

What drew you towards the Istanbul as the setting for Stray?

The history of stray dogs in Istanbul is incredible. During the fall of the Ottoman Empire in the 1900s, a British diplomat fell to his death after being chased by a pack of dogs in Istanbul, so the British government – in typical outsized reaction – forced the Sultan to round up any untethered dog and exile them to an island where the city’s residents could hear the dogs howling as they starved to death. Shortly afterwards huge fires broke out (because no dogs were there to warn the city’s inhabitants), followed by World War I, and so the exiling of the dogs was perceived to be a curse on the city. In the continued attempt to westernize or “modernize,” the Turkish government has tried to fully exterminate stray dogs, but the will of the people have prevented that from happening. In 2004, mass protests against the extermination of dogs enabled lawmakers to pass legislation that made it illegal to euthanize or incarcerate any healthy stray dog Turkey (imagine trying to pass those laws in the US or the UK). And so to me, every free roaming dog in Istanbul – just like Zeytin – is a walking testament to non-human resilience and also human compassion.

From your perspective, does being a stray mean to be able to call everywhere your home or nowhere?

I think there’s a qualitative difference between people and animals living without homes, and I don’t think a meaningful comparison can be made. The dogs seemed very content in Istanbul to be free to call any pavement their home, whereas for humans who were homeless, it was a hardship to endure.

Do you still think about the dogs and the children involved in the film?

Yes of course. Our co-producer Zeynep Koprulu who lives in Istanbul will send me pictures from her phone whenever she runs into Zeytin or the boys. My heart warms to know that Zeytin is still living her life, and I feel sad for the young men growing up without infrastructure to support their lives or education because of the wars ravaging their homelands. During the pandemic, Turkey’s government and the people still put out food for all the stray animals despite the lock-down, which didn’t surprise me at all given what I’ve come to know about the deep cultural bond with stray animals there.

As a filmmaker of Asian heritage and a woman, would you say that the path you have had to navigate has been more difficult than others? Who knows what it would be like if I happened to occupy a role in society that is perceived to come with more authority or power? But if I were, I probably wouldn’t be making the films that I do, or in the way that I do.

Is there any work from you in the future that we should be looking out for? If not, do you have any recommendations of other things we should be watching?

Watch Victor Kassokovsky’s GUNDA whenever it is released by NEON. It’s a stunning, devastating masterpiece that casts a mother pig in the most beautiful, profound light, and one of the most important films I’ve seen in at least the last decade.

Thank you for your time Elizabeth!