'Kedi': Film Review

Enlightening if you’re not a cat person, straight-up catnip if you are.

The first feature-length film by Ceyda Torun zeros in on a few of Istanbul’s hundreds of thousands of street cats, and their human friends.

For anyone who’s curious about the historical events and municipal policies affecting Istanbul’s thriving population of street cats, Kedi offers little in the way of informative detail. But if you’d just like to hang with a few of the scrappy felines, Ceyda Torun’s entrancing documentary is manna from the cat gods. A collective portrait that’s as elegant as its light-footed subjects, it’s guaranteed to soothe a weary mind, and just might lower blood pressure, too.

The aesthetic treat is only part of the picture in this valentine of a film. Tossing aside a basketful of cat clichés, stereotypes and misperceptions (I’m talking to you, Hollywood animators), Torun offers compelling evidence, for those who need it, that there’s far more to cats than their novelty as addictively adorable YouTube attractions. Through seven captivating vignettes of resourceful felines and their human admirers, she crafts a paean to elemental joy and a very specific interconnectedness, unchained and unconditional. Kedi (Turkish for “cat”) leaves no doubt that one Istanbul resident is speaking for many when he tells the filmmaker that the city’s cats are an integral part of its soul.

Returning to the place of her childhood, a city whose population has grown dramatically over the past few decades, the director zeros in on the cat-centric world that courses through the metropolitan hubbub. Napping on store awnings, car windshields and motorcycle seats, the cats are clearly at ease in whichever section of the city they call home. The movie’s septet of main characters live in a broad range of neighborhoods: shopping districts, industrial areas, residential sections and tourist hotspots. Their temperaments vary widely, too, each personality conveyed with humor and heart in succinct fashion, thanks to the nimble editing of Mo Stoebe. Musical selections and Kira Fontana’s score honor each animal’s individuality while celebrating local culture.

In views across the water and aerial drone shots, Istanbul is a gleaming synthesis of Old World and new. But it’s the cat-level camerawork that’s extraordinary and gives the doc its singular kick. Cinematographers Charlie Wuppermann and Alp Korfali move in for heart-melting, contemplative close-ups of some of the four-legged city dwellers. Shifting into impressive action mode, their cat-cams follow kitties along building ledges and busy streets, up trees, onto rooftops, into secret lairs. When one graceful clown races through the stalls of an open-air market, the camera whisks along right behind him.

In interviews for the film, journalist Mine Sogut, cartoonist Bülent Üstün and painter Elif Nursad Atalay find fresh angles to explain why cats inspire them. As to the seven highlighted cats, the people who have let them into their lives marvel at their independence, expressing deep respect for the way they come and go at will. Compared with American concepts of pet “ownership,” this open-door policy might raise paternalistic anxieties. But the cats, fed and tended to by communities of caregivers, all appear strikingly healthy. A baker notes with a laugh, while the black-and-white shorthair who claims him as his “main human” makes the neighborhood rounds, that he and most of his neighbors have running tabs with veterinarians.

The cats’ devotees radiate their own wellness and gratitude. One beaming man, who daily dispenses food and, where necessary, antibiotic drops, credits his commitment to the critters with lifting him from the aftermath of a nervous breakdown. Another, feeding an orphaned litter with a syringe, relates the feline “miracle” that arrived at a crucial moment in his life. And when a craftsman brushes the cat he’s helped to care for since she was a kitten, he’s at least as delighted as the purring tabby.

The cats themselves are a fascinating bunch. A new mom puts such swagger into her begging that it becomes something else entirely. A restaurant’s self-appointed mouser covers the waterfront at night, alone, like a film noir character. There’s telenovela melodrama from an imperious tuxedo cat who’s pathologically jealous of other females. At an upscale delicatessen, a reserved gray-haired cat signals through the window that he’s ready for his smoked turkey and manchego. Among the sidewalk tables of that restaurant, a panhandling little girl apparently goes unacknowledged. Her appearance is the most direct, and troubling, instance of a broader social context for Torun’s cat stories, which otherwise exists only at their edges.

One interviewee comments that the city no longer accommodates the street cats, but the specifics behind that statement are never spelled out. What’s clear, though, is that these urban creatures are facing a loss of habitat in certain quarters as orchards and gardens give way to high-rise construction. In a sprawling produce market that’s threatened by such development, the vendors are less worried about the effects of the demolition on themselves than on the cats.

Whatever the city’s official attitude toward its many felines, Istanbulites’ dedication and love appear unflagging. Kedi eloquently taps into the mutual attraction between the cats and their people, as well as the animals’ complexity and resilience. The simplistic conventional “wisdom” about cats, always uttered by people who don’t know them, is that they’re aloof. Torun’s film is a vibrant illustration of just how attuned they are to people, how interested and discerning. If her collection of feline portraits has an emotional/philosophical throughline, it’s the idea that, for we humans, interacting only with people isn’t enough, as one man sums it up. Another, counting the benefits he’s reaped from his years-long relationship with a cat who comes and goes from his shop, notes “the endless conversations.” In Kedi, we get to listen in.

Production companies: Termite Films, PK Film
Distributor: Oscilloscope Laboratories
With: Sari, Duman, Bengü, Aslan Parçasi (Little Lion), Gamsiz, Psikopat, Deniz
Director: Ceyda Torun
Producers: Ceyda Torun, Charlie Wuppermann
Executive producers: Thomas Podstawski, Gregor Kewel
Director of photography: Charlie Wuppermann
Additional cinematography: Alp Korfali
Editor: Mo Stoebe
Composer: Kira Fontana

79 minutes