The set up might seem like it’s from a family-friendly film from a major Hollywood studio that wants to counter-program against so many movies aimed at dog lovers. But Turkish-born director Ceyda Torun’s exceptional, almost otherworldly, documentary Kedi details the very real and quite unique living situation in Istanbul where humans and cats live in a kind of ecosystem in which they take care of each other’s basic needs and somehow make existing in the world an easier task. Although truth be told, it seems fairly clear that the cats run the place, and the humans are lovingly tolerated by them.
Just to be clear, Istanbul is not a place where many people keep cats as pets—there are a few, but those folks are barely acknowledged in the film. Instead, thousands of cats roam the streets of this ancient city, having originally been brought in in massive numbers to deal with the rat problems during the early years of the Ottoman Empire. Although the people of Istanbul don’t “own” the cats, it seems that many citizens unofficially adopt one or many, always have some type of food for them, and supply the cats with ample amounts of petting, attention, and perhaps a place to rest or live. In return, according to unnamed interviewed residents, the cats provide a type of therapeutic vibe, just by being cute, smart, and possessing heightened personalities that (again, according to the folks interviewed) dogs simply don’t have.
More than one person to whom Torun speaks to mentions that the cats serve a spiritual purpose. One man likens the time spent with his particular feline to the comfort he experiences holding his prayer beads. At another point in the movie, someone says that dogs think humans are gods, but cats don’t; they see us as middlemen for God, because they know better.
Lest you think that Kedi is all about humans’ reactions to cats, most of the film is devoted to simply following around a select few felines—some friendly, some standoffish, some psychotic—on their day-to-day journeys. Many adult cats have kittens to take care of and defend, while others are scavengers or tiny con artists who elicit sympathy from passing people or patrons in restaurants for food. The sole purpose of the many cafes in Istanbul seems to be to provide scraps for cats underfoot.
A large percentage of the film is shot down low to the ground, following each animal from its perspective. Cinematographers Charlie Wuppermann & Alp Korfali do extraordinary work following the cats (via what I can only assume are tiny Steadicams), who thankfully never seem in a terrible hurry to get anywhere, but are capable of squeezing into impossibly small spaces or making leaps from one small ledge to another that no human acrobat would dare.
And while we watch these sleek, elegant creatures, we begin to notice consistent behaviors among them all, from their stature and poise to the economic way they maneuver through a crowd, always keeping their tails tucked or close to their body to avoid being trampled. You’ll also grow to love the sound of excessive purring; it’s pretty much the soundtrack to this piece. Time spent with each cat is like a micro-story of survival, resourcefulness, humor, and tolerance on both sides of the equation. The more time we spend with them, the more fascinating and curious they become.
So where is the drama in Kedi? In the film’s final act, we learn that Istanbul is a rapidly growing city, where tall buildings are springing up like weeds, and entire sections of the city are suddenly being made crowded by urban sprawl, squeezing out cats from long-held shelter. It is also worth noting that this film was was made before Syrian refugees started migrating to Turkish shores in early 2016. Between the influx of new buildings and new people, Istanbul is a very different place than it was when the film’s images were shot. It’s almost impossible to watch this movie without trying to visualize the city in its current state.
It seems clear that the purpose of Kedi is not to simply parade cute, cuddly, affectionate cats in front of cameras and have Turkish residents tell us how special they are. There are low-level messages of tolerance and kindness being conveyed, but it’s almost impossible to accept that this balance has been struck anywhere on earth. In every shot, there’s a cat at some corner of the frame, living its life, and finding the means to co-exist with a society that has embraced it. Both parties make it look so easy, which of course means it isn’t. If it were, everybody would be doing it.
The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.