DOC NYC 2020 Women Directors: Meet Elizabeth Lo – “Stray”

Elizabeth Lo is an award-winning filmmaker who was named one of the 25 New Faces of Independent Film by Filmmaker Magazine. Her shorts include “Hotel 22,” “Bisonhead,” and “Mother’s Day.” Lo’s work has been showcased internationally, including at Sundance, Tribeca, Hot Docs, True/False, New York Times Op Docs, and BAMcinemaFest. “Stray” is her feature debut.

“Stray” is screening at the 2020 DOC NYC film festival, which is taking place online from November 11-19.

W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.

EL: “Stray” follows a trio of dogs in Istanbul as they roam through cafes and abandoned buildings, and encounter different populations who share the streets with them.

Grounded in a nonhuman perspective, “Stray” glimpses into what society looks like away from the centers of power, exploring what it means to live as a being without status or security on the peripheries of human society.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

EL: I began this film from a very personal place. It was in reaction to my own dog’s passing. Inspired by him, I wanted to give narrative space and time to beings whose lives are not ordinarily afforded that, and to use the wordless potential of cinema to express the dignity of even the most common and seemingly insignificant lived experiences. And so I found Zeytin, my canine protagonist in Istanbul, a city that has a fascinating and complicated history with stray dogs.

The state has tried to annihilate stray dogs since the 1900s, leading to mass killings of Istanbul’s street dogs for the last century, but widespread protests against these killings transformed Turkey into one of the only countries where it is now illegal to euthanize or hold captive any stray dog.

I first met Zeytin and Nazar as they hurried past me in a busy underground tunnel in Istanbul on the heels of several young men from Syria — Jamil, Halil, and Ali — who were living on the streets as refugees in Turkey. I began to follow them over months as they found shelter together.

Despite the harshness of their circumstances, the dogs and the boys had formed a makeshift family unit. Without the companionship of the dogs, the Syrian boys would have felt adrift in a city not their own — and perhaps it was the same for Zeytin and Nazar. This was deeply moving to me. At the same time, Zeytin always managed to maintain her independence from people, and that sense of self and nonhuman agency was something beautiful and unfamiliar that I also wanted to envelop audiences in.

W&H: What do you want people to think about after they watch the film?

EL: I want viewers to think about whatever the film awakens in them personally. Partly, I hope that seeing how nonhuman lives are integrated into the city of Istanbul raises questions about what a more humane and just society in their own hometowns might look like.

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

EL: Adapting a canine story to our human viewers’ sensibilities was a constant challenge in writing the treatment, during shooting, and while editing “Stray,” but over time, this balancing act ultimately felt really natural because our stories and the story of dogs have always been intertwined: we evolved with them as much as they with us.

W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.

EL: We were fortunate to receive support from IFP Film Week, Rooftop Filmmaker Fund, BAVC Mediamaker Fellowship, and the ARRI Amira Grant, and will always be grateful to these organizations for believing in “Stray” and enabling us to go out to shoot the bulk of the film in 2018.

I also took on key creative roles personally — like editing and cinematography — to keep our budget very small, and supported the film with savings, loans, and the generous time and labor of a team that really believed in the film.

W&H: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?

EL: I always dreamed of making films because I love them, but was intimidated by the large crew sizes required to make them. It was watching Errol Morris’ early documentaries — “Vernon, Florida” and “Gates of Heaven” — that made me realize nonfiction could accommodate creative authorship and self-expression as readily as fiction.

I also just feel like film is the language I know how to speak in, and that’s why I continue to make them.

W&H: What’s the best advice you’ve received?

EL: The lessons I’ve learned or had to unlearn keep changing as time goes on, but the best advice I’ve received is to always find ways to stay excited and optimistic — sometimes to the point of delusion — because the work is mostly hard.

W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?

EL: Choose to work with people who have experienced and understand marginalization in some capacity as much as possible. A sense of having to overcome can come in many forms: whether through one’s gender, ethnicity, class, orientation, or even physical or mental health. Those who haven’t been given the benefit of the doubt in life often have to work doubly hard and be twice as brave to survive, and are often compelled by the circumstances of their station to think more deeply and sensitively about everything, and those types of perspectives can only make you and your work better.

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

EL: “Meek’s Cutoff” by Kelly Reichardt. She immerses us in this world with so much rigor, singularity of vision, tension, and patience in all the right places. I love the way it unpacks the blunders of patriarchy, fear of the unknown, and the colonization of the American West through such sparse moments with a small cast. It uses film’s language — not the language of words but tempo, sound, images, and movement — to convey a perspective about history and the present that I really appreciate.

W&H: How are you adjusting to life during the COVID-19 pandemic? Are you keeping creative, and if so, how?

EL: I’m still working as much as I can. I’m pre-producing my next project and taking on jobs as they come. To stay sane and involved with the parts of the filmmaking process that I love the most — where you can truly lose yourself — I’ve found unrealized footage on my old hard drives and started editing them into short films.

W&H: Recent protests in the U.S. and abroad have highlighted racism and anti-Black police brutality. The film industry has a long history of underrepresenting people of color onscreen and behind the scenes and reinforcing — and creating — negative stereotypes. What actions do you think need to be taken to make Hollywood and/or the doc world more inclusive?

EL: Funders, programmers, and gatekeepers need to question why they are attracted to certain stories about certain people or nations — and examine the films that simply affirm their pre-existing beliefs and prejudices, and find ways to combat the limitations of these biases.

November 10, 2020
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