A Trotting Pace

Interview: Elizabeth Lo on STRAY (2020)

I first encountered the work of documentary filmmaker Elizabeth Lo while serving on San Diego Asian Film Festival’s programming committee. Her economic and elegant shorts stood out from other nonfiction entries for their seemingly infinite patience toward vulnerable subjects trying to live and love on the fringes of society.

Mother’s Day (2017), co-directed with R.J. Lozada, follows a group of children on an annual pilgrimage to meet with their parents currently incarcerated at one California penitentiary. Hotel 22 (2014) takes its title from the Silicon Valley bus line that transforms into an after hours shelter for the local homeless population. These are stories most filmmakers would try to manipulate with sentiment or pity, but Lo’s approach gives the subjects space to exist on their own terms.

After traveling the national festival circuit in 2020, Lo’s excellent debut feature documentary Stray is now available to view in virtual cinemas around the country thanks to Magnolia Pictures. Once again, it features the filmmaker’s singular calmness and openness to the surprises of everyday life. But in this case, those surprises are even more volatile, fascinating, and funny as Lo’s camera wanders around the streets of Istanbul with an unforgettable stray dog named Zeytin, who encounters everyone from locals and women’s rights protesters to refugees from Syria, not to mention countless other street animals.

I was lucky enough to virtually speak with Elizabeth Lo to discuss her fondness for canines, aesthetic choices, and filmmaking philosophies.

Glenn Heath Jr.: When did you first want to become a filmmaker?

Elizabeth Lo: I always loved watched movies growing up. In high school I participated in these 48 hour filmmaking contests, and the films were never really that good but it taught me a lot. Then I decided to attend film school. Originally I wanted to write screenplays, but at NYU discovered documentaries and was exposed to works like Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil (1983), Errol Morris’ Vernon, Florida (1981) and Gates of Heaven (1978). Those films made me realize, oh you can still be an artist in the space of nonfiction without having to work with huge crews and all the other things that fiction filmmaking requires. I fell in love with the documentary process, and over the years became more adept at it.

GHJ: What were some of the key filmmaking lessons you learned while doing your graduate work at Stanford?

EL: Just getting to work with a camera again was one of the more influential elements for me. After NYU, for several years I didn’t touch a camera because I was working on a broadcast documentary series as an associate producer. The roles were so compartmentalized, and if you weren’t a Director of Photography you never really touched a camera. Being in the Stanford program compelled me to take on every single role - shoot, edit, direct, and produce. That sort of opened me up to my strengths, and a love for shooting which became so integral to my documentary process.

Also, I thought I knew a lot about documentary going into the program but it exposed me to so much of the genre’s history, from people like Robert Gardner, John Marshall, Jean Rouch, all those seminal documentary filmmakers to Victor Cozakaski and other international auteurs outside the North American space. It was really inspiring. So those were the key takeaways, being exposed to a much larger body of nonfiction filmmaking and in practice being able to do everything myself.

GHJ: Your shorts are all incredibly patient. As a documentary filmmaker, what is the key to letting the story reveal itself over time? Is it something innate in you as a person or something you’ve learned over time?

EL: It’s probably a combination of both. I like to react to things rather than driving a ship and making lots of decisions. I like to be left to the whims of what’s happening around me, whether it’s with people or vehicles or environments. I think that’s just my personality. It thrills me when I’m holding and holding and holding with so much patience on a shot and right at the end when you think you’re done something incredible happens. And that’s partly why I love documentary. It feels like everything you’re capturing is a bonus and a privilege. In fiction you’re crafting everything, but with documentary you are constantly stumbling upon things and I enjoy that process a lot.

GHJ: How did the idea for Stray come about?

EL: I grew up with a dog, and loving dogs. When he passed away I felt this need to suppress my grief of his passing. Which a lot of people must experience because he wasn’t exactly a human family member even though I’d grown up with him. So that kind of made me want to make a film that centered on beings like him, but in the vehicle of a stray dog who is even more a second or third class citizen.

Upon arriving in Turkey I realized that was not the case. Strays have all these rights that protect them and I was really struck that they were allowed to roam freely. They have the right to freedom and to wander around multiple territories, so I hoped to capture that and show it to the world. Originally I had wanted to do a cultural comparison of how stray dogs were treated in around the globe to see the differences and similarities. But that all changed after I found out about the history of dogs in Turkey. For the last 100 years they had been persecuted out of the desire to become more Western, in conforming to Western standards of what a clean and functioning city should look like. Which is to be without stray animals.

But people loved dogs so much that they protested against the killings and fought for animal rights, and that was really significant to me. Then, once I encountered Zeytin and followed her it was so singular. I was amazed at how independent she was, and the fact that she could walk away from my camera at any moment. She was never became really attached to me in the way that other dogs might be. It felt like the whole film could hang on her.

GHJ: What was the process like for choosing your subjects?

EL: Originally in 2017 during our first shoot we had this idea: Can a dog’s point of view tell us anything about humanity? But I realized from that footage that it didn’t feel authentic. It felt imposed from the top down, what my desires of the story should be. So in 2018 we went back and didn’t pre-produce anything. There was nothing in our schedule, nobody to meet, unlike the previous shoot, and we just wandered around the city being open to how the dogs responded to us, and what we were drawn to.

Zeytin and Nazar were two of the dogs we came across when me and my crew were walking through this underground tunnel with lots of people. We saw these dogs weaving between people’s legs and they were in a hurry somewhere, which was really intriguing to us because you don’t normally think of stray dogs as having appointments to keep. So we followed them and they happened to be on the heels of the young Syrian men with whom they had this really beautiful relationship. From there we started filming them and slowly my camera started gravitating more and more to Zeytin, her face and the solitary adventures she would take away from the young men.

GHJ: What was your relationship like with the young Syrian men? Were they always going to be part of this story or was their involvement a byproduct of where Zeytin took you?

EL: It was a byproduct of where Zeytin led us. And because of her relationship with them I think her range, the territory she covered was wider than other stray dogs that tend to stay around one block or a few blocks. Hers was vast, sometimes crossing bridges into different districts, partially because sometimes she would join the young men as they traversed across the city. I think that made Zeytin a very compelling subject because then she would wander off on her own and encounter many different things and people. But I was moved by the warmth felt between the boys and Zeytin and also by how much the boys needed Zeytin. I don’t know how much she needed them.

It was also important to me in the editing process that this relationship didn’t overtake the film, that their story didn’t overtake things. Because the film is so much about following dogs, and letting dogs cinematically speak for themselves because we didn’t have an agenda. We really wanted the film to be an authentic representation of a stray dog’s life. I always wanted to allow Zeytin to become solitary again after moments with the young men, so hopefully the spine of the film was not just about her relationship with humans.

GHJ: I was really struck by how the film’s cinematography, editing, and sound design all cohere around a very specific vantage point. Can you talk about how you approached capturing the city and these moments from the dog’s perspective?

EL: Partly it was born out of a frustration with other animal films or films that purport to be about animals. They don’t truly try to represent the perspective of animals in the way that stories about humans do visually. The height of the camera work, and the lenses that you choose, mimicking what’s natural to us. So the cinematography is kind of this negotiation between trying to be as close to the dog’s point of view as possible without alienating human viewers.

Beauty was a big part of it. I tried strapping GoPro’s to dogs, because really that would be the most authentic way to capture their vantage point, but it was also too alienating. I also wanted visual beauty to lend associations that you might find in a fiction film with an actress. I wanted those associations to exist in my cinematography for Zeytin and the other dogs in the film, to give their life a sense of gravity by striving to be formally seductive. And with the sound design I had the honor of working with a composer who had this beautiful score which matches with our enveloping sound design work. In some segments of the film it weaves together to try and sonically grasp at representing what a dog’s hearing might be like. A representation of their attention to what we’re seeing, like the dialogue that we’re hearing. The frequency is much more heightened because dogs hear at a higher frequency. But again we didn’t use that approach throughout the film because it would have been too difficult for human audiences.

GHJ: How is Zeytin doing currently?

EL: The last time I saw Zeytin was in 2019 when I went back for a pickup shoot, and she was fine then. But Zeynep Köprülü, who is my co-producer and lives in Istanbul, regularly sends me pictures of Zeytin whenever she encounters her on the streets. I was worried about Zeytin during the pandemic, but I think she’s surviving well, because the government is still setting out food for all the dogs despite lockdowns.

GHJ: You use quotes from the Cynic philosopher Diogenes as inter-titles, kind of like chapter headings. Why do you think he had such an affinity for dogs?

EL: I wouldn’t be able to say, but his entire philosophy was modeled around stray dogs and he aspired to live like a stray dog. He had come from wealth but renounced it. He wanted to be without property or work, family or marriage, in order to become less complicit in human hypocrisy. He was born in Sinop, which is now modern day Turkey, and I imagine just as many dogs, if not more, occupied the streets when he was alive. So the film attempts to cinematically practice this ancient philosophy from thousands of years ago to see if looking at dogs would reveal something more about humanity.

GHJ: Class is a very important theme in your work, especially in Stray. Why is this something you keep returning to?

EL: I’ve never really thought about it so explicitly like that but I guess that’s definitely a through line in a lot of films that I’ve made. I’m of the belief that the world as seen from the peripheries, or from those who are further away from the circles of power, gives a more accurate view of society than if you were to look at it from a position of authority. For me, making films is about revealing truths in relation to the world and society, so taking on the viewpoints of those who are disempowered by the systems that exist today is always going to be more revealing and getting at that truth that I’m interested in.

GHJ: Stray feels like a film about bearing witness to a wide range of experiences; confrontation, protest, injustice, and a lot of lazy afternoons sleeping on the sidewalk. I like to think Zeytin will remember all of those memories. What were some of the memories that you’ll remember most from making this film?

EL: The moments that stand out the most for me are the ones of kindness and humor. Like when the trash truck driver decides to intervene and enact justice between the two dogs fighting over the bone, making sure that they split it fairly. Or when those Chinese tourists are laughing and yelling at Zeytin for pooping everywhere, telling her she’s going to get rounded up. Or when the dogs are having sex during the women’s rights march. I think those are the moments that I love the most, the ones that make me laugh.

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