At The Movies: Turkish dogs are stars of Stray; art takes down a polluter in Minamata

In the documentary Stray, Hong Kong film-maker Elizabeth Lo shows a canine pack in its natural state as her camera follows the animals from beach and park to construction site and busy shopping district.
In the documentary Stray, Hong Kong film-maker Elizabeth Lo shows a canine pack in its natural state as her camera follows the animals from beach and park to construction site and busy shopping district.PHOTO: THE PROJECTOR

Stray (NC16)

72 minutes, opens Thursday (May 20) exclusively at The Projector, 4 stars

In Istanbul, Turkey's largest city, half a million dogs and cats roam the streets. There is a rich vein of lore explaining why this ancient metropolis is so stray-friendly and this documentary touches on some of it in title cards.

Those terse lines are about all the exposition you will get because the hook - or gimmick, if you prefer - is that viewers see the world through the eyes of its three furry protagonists, known in the film as Zeytin, Nazar and Kartal.

Hong Kong film-maker Elizabeth Lo filmed this exercise in immersiveness between 2017 and 2019, with her handheld camera held a metre off the ground - at dog's eye level. She follows the animals from beach to park to construction site to busy shopping district, often in the company of glue-sniffing Syrian refugee boys who, like the animals they clearly love, are homeless.

This film, winner of the Best International Documentary at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival 2020, is a natural bookend to Kedi (2016), director Ceyda Torun's study of Istanbul's street cats.

But where Kedi was warm and human-centred, in Stray, Lo centres the dogs as creatures who live with humans but who also choose to form their own communities.

She shows the pack in their warts-and-all natural state, without Kedi's emphasis on adorability. Her main characters mate and defecate on the street, root through garbage, snap at one another in inexplicable displays of violence, accept food from strangers and then move off to other business in a heartbeat.

Snatches of human speech offer some context, but Lo refuses to employ tricks of storytelling to make canine society less alien. The hands-off mode often leaves one with more questions than answers, but it is best to just give in and let it be.

It is a dog's world and we are just visitors.

Minamata (NC16)

115 minutes, opens Thursday (May 20), 3 stars

It used to be easy to tell the story of a Westerner whose life was made glorious because of deeds performed in Asia or Africa. Drop him into the middle of the continent, add some exotic backgrounds and music and a battle or two, and you get biographical epics like Lawrence Of Arabia (1962) or a glimpse of an empire in moral decline, like the Vietnam War movie Apocalypse Now (1979).

These days, films like that are rarer because Hollywood is more aware of how it looks from the outside when non-whites play secondary roles or are villains in stories set in their own lands while the American or European hero takes centre stage.


PHOTO: SHAW ORGANISATION

Minamata is a happy sign of the times. While it celebrates the life of one American and the Japanese community that exposed its most intimate wounds to him and his camera, its real hero is art, in particular the deliberately composed photographic image.

The film opens with celebrated war photographer W. Eugene Smith in New York behaving obnoxiously. He is played by Johnny Depp, who shows he can play both sweet, charming drunkards as well as selfish, destructive ones.

This is not meant as a slight, but as a testament to his ability to add nuance. The story takes care to explain not just who he is, but his art style and how he got here, washed-up and asking Life magazine editor and friend Robert Hayes (Bill Nighy) for one last favour.

He wants to be sent to Minamata, Japan, where reports of a slow-building disaster have been trickling in for over a decade. Japanese actors Hiroyuki Sanada, Tadanobu Asano and Ryo Kase, among others, play strong supporting roles as people fighting the Chisso chemical company, whom they accuse of dumping toxic waste into the surrounding sea.

The film suffers from pacing and editing issues, much of it because of how it has interwoven Smith's predictable personal arc with the townspeople's fight with Chisso, with its legal thriller overtones.

The unifying theme - the transformative power of art - sometimes gets lost in the drama, but there is enough of it here to make the whole thing work.