Stray director flies to Istanbul to save her street-dog star

Zeytin’s final afternoon in Istanbul before being rescued by documentary filmmaker Elizabeth Lo. Photographs courtesy of Elizabeth LoHandout

When Hong Kong filmmaker Elizabeth Lo set out to make a documentary about stray dogs in Istanbul, she wanted to immerse viewers in an animal’s life, to have the camera follow them wherever they went, directed more by the dog’s will than anyone else’s.

This required a careful sort of casting. There were hundreds of thousands of dogs to choose from in the city – Turkish law forbids the killing of strays and requires municipalities to care for them in the community – but not all were suitable protagonists.

Then they found Zeytin. “She had this really wide range, which allowed the film to travel to places it wouldn’t have gone otherwise,” Ms. Lo said. “And her face is so expressive, her eyes. She had this singular quality.”

That quality quickly made Zeytin the star of stray, released last year. Her life seemed to be a testament to the effectiveness of Turkey’s uniquely tolerant policy toward stray animals, one that allows them to operate on their own terms, interacting with but independent of the human city around them.

“Turkey has these very radical, hard-fought laws that protect stray animals’ right to life and right to freedom,” Ms. Lo said. She also saw how the people of Istanbul cared for and loved their strays, providing food for them and taking them to the vet if they were sick or injured.

This made it possible for the filmmaker to leave her star in 2019, reasonably confident that Zeytin would be okay, even if in the back of her mind, she always felt the current situation was “a tenuous balance, that the protections people fought for these dogs were going to be overturned.

“But I thought that would be decades in the future,” she said.

But just nine months after the film was released, in late December, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan gave a speech criticizing “white Turks” – the country’s secular, Europe-leaning elite – for failing to “take responsibility for your animals.”

Elizabeth Lo says she ‘stumbled across’ Zeytin in a café on one of her last days in the city. Here, Ms. Lo wakes up the street-dog star for the first time to see if it’s really her.Handout

Mr. Erdogan was speaking after a child was attacked by pit bulls in the southern city of Gaziantep. The dogs were not strays, but the President used it as an opportunity to “call on all our municipalities to take the steps that will ensure the safety of our citizens … by removing stray animals from the streets.”

In response to Mr. Erdogan’s call, many municipalities began rounding up dogs, moving them to shelters that soon became overcrowded. Horrific images of dead and dying dogs were shared on social media as activists around the country began to organize against the measures.

“People tried to protect the animals in their neighborhoods and wouldn’t allow them to be taken. There was a lot of resistance,” said Mert Akkok, an Istanbul businessman and animal-rights activist. “The government did not expect this reaction.”

Soon Mr. Erdogan was claiming never to have issued the order (though the speech is still on his official website), saying he was only ever talking about dangerous dogs.

Seeing the news from Turkey, Ms. Lo felt she had to do something for Zeytin, to whom she felt she owed a great debt. She posted appeals online, but soon realized she would have to fly to Istanbul herself.

The idea she might already be dead, “really shook me,” Ms. Lo said. “If Zeytin had died while we were pushing our film about her life out into the world – and nobody even knew – I would not want to make documentaries any more,” she wrote on Instagram. “The ethical bargain of making non-fiction would be too steep: What’s the point of making a film that not enough people see to even make a difference to the life of its protagonist?”

She gave herself a week to look for Zeytin, not sure how really to go about it. But landing in Istanbul, she found a city that was full of people equally determined to track the dog down. Visiting a vet to ask after Zeytin, Ms. Lo ran into a woman who was doing exactly the same thing, without realizing the director was in town.

On one of her last days in the city, “we finally stumbled across her in a café,” Ms. Lo said. The dog was sleeping, indifferent to any danger or the search under way for her.

“We found her because of the efforts of so many people who reached out to us over social media,” Ms. Lo said. It felt like “such an affirmation” as to the power of filmmaking.

Filmmaker Elizabeth Lo is reunited with Zeytin.Handout

Even then, seeing the dog so content, so like she had always been, gave her pause. “Her life still seemed good in Istanbul, where dogs aren’t being rounded up.”

Ms. Lo wondered whether she had the right to take a decision on Zeytin’s behalf. But she thought back to during production when she failed to act in time to save a dog she thought was at risk.

“It hardened my resolve that you must act when you have an instinct that something bad could happen.”

Before coming to Istanbul, she had spoken to Mr. Akkok about potentially adopting Zeytin. He lives on a farm on the outskirts of Istanbul, which he shares with 20 dogs, a blind horse, an orphan donkey and dozens of disabled gulls rescued from the streets of the city.

“It’s not a shelter or sanctuary, it is my home. I do it all by myself, I don’t get any support from anyone, but this is my passion, this is my mission in life,” he said. “At some point I had decided not to adopt more and more dogs, because I had to stop somewhere, I could not afford to keep adding more, but when Elizabeth contacted me and said she found Zeytin, it was such a heartwarming story, I couldn’t resist.”

Elizabeth Lo, right, and Elias Pena Slavador, right, visit the home of Mert Akkok before introducing Zeytin the next day.Handout

Zeytin arrived at her new home at the end of January. “She’s a very friendly dog,” Mr. Akkok said, and she is adapting to becoming part of a pack. “Once she is used to that she will be a member of the family, I promised Elizabeth I will keep her until the end.”

Ms. Lo had once considered taking Zeytin herself, even though she knew her own itinerant lifestyle was completely unsuitable. Mr. Akkok provided, by contrast, the perfect home.

“I don’t want her story to be promoting a narrative that all dogs need to be housed and homed, because stray was the opposite of that,” she said. “But Mert truly loves dogs, and allows street dogs to live with the same type of freedom and agency they had on the streets but within a safety of a home.”

Ms. Lo said the resistance to Mr. Erdogan’s anti-dog campaign “fills me with so much hope” that Turkey might cling onto its hard-fought protections and unique tolerance for stray animals.

“It was a testament to the deep spirit of love, that these dogs are embraced by a large swath of the population,” she said. “And that will hopefully outlast any government.”

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