“Without the cat, Istanbul would lose part of its soul”
I’m not an animal lover, a reality one subject in Ceyda Torun‘s documentary Kedi presumes means I cannot love anything. Such a sentiment is hyperbolic, but there’s something to be said about people’s interactions with animals exposing how they’ll interact with humans too. You don’t have to be an animal person to understand their role in others’ lives or the fact that they too are living, breathing entities. At a certain point you must reach down and give a dog or cat a pet, scrap of food, or at the very least some attention. And that’s coming from an American who didn’t grow up amongst hundreds of thousands of roaming cats like in Istanbul, Turkey. For that city’s inhabitants it’s almost impossible not to treat felines as family.
It’s this relationship that Torun captures by following seven distinct cats and the handful of people each touches in indelible ways. She and cinematographer husband Charlie Wuppermann had a line on about forty, filmed around twenty, and eventually pared that lot to Sari, Duman, Bengü, Aslan Parçasi, Gamsiz, Psikopat, and Deniz. Their breeds are disparate and their attitudes just as unique considering some are scavengers, beggars, lovers, or brutes. None of them have one specific home (despite a few having a specific human with which to imprint), but each picks up a routine for survival. And just as they rely on the kindness of strangers, so too do those strangers on them. One story about personal salvation courtesy of a cat is cute—five-plus is hard to dismiss.
Whether fate allows a fisherman to earn a second chance thanks to a persistent cat or a victim of a nervous breakdown learns to smile again because of his feline friend, the notion that these animals have a spiritual ability to absorb your demons is powerful. Torun’s subjects speak about how their lives were altered because a cat serendipitously crossed their paths. We see the compassion they hold for animals that aren’t their responsibility besides through a universal charitable desire to help another living soul thrive. One woman cooks twenty pounds of chicken a day to feed whatever cats are in and around her shop, street, and neighborhood. One man is revealed to be such an animal lover that people bring him injured cats to receive necessary care.
It’s a cultural thing, obviously. These cats aren’t actually sucking the evil out of this ancient city as much as providing it a semblance of warmth no other locale experiences. There’s truth to the way these citizens interact with each other too as a result of living alongside these creatures, their sheer existence allowing children to find joy and companionship beyond friends and family. You begin to look forward to seeing them—especially if one is recognizable enough to carve out a place in your heart. They have utility as far as keeping the mice population down, but also to increase a sense of empathy amongst the population. To have a common source of smiles is something you simply cannot take for granted in this day and age.
And these cats are nothing if not catalysts for that reaction—even to this soulless writer. Whether it’s the cute begging of Sari (and the laughter caused from watching every human comply), a bruiser in Gamsiz racking up a veterinarian tab no one expects to be paid, or Duman “the gentleman” pawing for food as though ordering rather than stealing, they’re all a delight to stalk. Psikopat the psycho is also fun to watch screaming in the face of potential adulterers, her ferocity flowing into her relationship to instill enough fear that her man only eats what’s leftover once she’s finished. Each has a nuanced personality that goes beyond mere canine domesticity. They’re smart, believe they are our equals, and never shy from letting us know it.
Beyond who they are and how they alter the lives around them, however, Kedi‘s appeal for me stems from each cat residing in a different part of Istanbul. This means Torun is able to supply a tour of her childhood home one character at a time. We move from Galata Tower to Karaköy to Kandilli to Cihangir to the Feriköy Organic Market to Samtya to Nişantaşi. There are skyscrapers taking over green spaces that used to shelter the animals and docks from which the ancestors of many arrived centuries ago on trade ships. There are apartment buildings with housecats and strays staring from opposite sides of glass and roamers who only have to meow at a closed door to get someone nearby to open it for them.
What better way to travel the city than on a seasoned cat’s back? With the camera following their every move from ground level meandering to death-defying stunts up ledges to night-vision pursuits of mice in the sewers, we see corners we never could by boarding a plane to vacation there for a week. Whereas humans have led the charge to give Istanbul architectural and infrastructure-based face-lifts throughout the centuries, these cats have remained an ever-evolving mainstay of vibrancy and independence despite each change. They haven’t been relegated to the status of “pest” nor suppressed from conceiving more kittens for the all-too-quick-to-respond civilians relishing their duty to grant each safe haven. You could almost say the cats are the ones letting the people stick around. This is their city.
courtesy of Oscilloscope