The delightful Turkish documentary “Kedi” takes us from the rooftops to the waterfront of Istanbul to showcase the city’s intrepid street cats. The film is narrated by various humans, who share their unique histories with the cats who’ve adopted them, but the film belongs to these feral felines.
The film is not just about these particular cats or people, of course, but the eternal appeal of the elegant, capricious creatures whom one woman fondly describes as “alien.”
The kitties are captured in all their playful, arbitrary, mysterious glory as the camera effortlessly follow them on their daily prowls to beg for food and back to their secret nests where humans are rarely allowed.
Among the cats we meet are Bengü, a light gray tabby with green eyes who’s stubborn, sensitive, and jealous of other cats, but loves her curbside brushings; and Gamsiz, a carefree cafe kitty who’s continually at the vet for his various scrapes and injuries. There’s also Psikopat, a black-and-white shorthair female so fierce she chases pit bulls and also scares off all other suitors for her “husband,” a far more mild-mannered cat.
The caretaker of an orange tabby echoes the sentiments of her fellow townspeople: She doesn’t believe in keeping cats cooped up. She loves the cat’s independence and spirit, how the cat talks back to her and refuses to move when asked. Another Turk points out one of the species’ trademark personality traits: They cannot be expected to return affection for food. “It’s not a return investment,” he says.
Bengu’s human gets even more philosophical: “It’s said that cats are aware of God’s existence, but dogs are not. Dogs think people are Gods, but cats don’t. Cats know that peoples are middlemen to God’s will. They’re not ungrateful. They just know better.”
As the humans reflect on what cats mean to them, the conversation touches on spirituality, freedom, mortality and even “defiant femininity.” Each cat lover admires something different about their particular kitty — including the fact that the cats aren’t really “theirs” at all, but free to roam as they please.
“Kedi” is a portrait not just of cats or people’s attitudes towards them, but of Istanbul, its history and its various residents, from fishermen to artists. Director Ceyda Torun could have turned her camera on any city and would likely have found the people of New York or London sharing much the same thoughts about their cats. But the citizens of Istanbul are happy to let their cats remain outdoors and unfixed. They seem to envy the cats their freedom and celebrate their undeniable tie to the continually shrinking presence of nature.
As the film’s beginning, the voiceover states, “The cat embodies the indescribable chaos, the culture, and the uniqueness that is the essence of Istanbul. Without the cat, Istanbul would lose a part of its soul.”
Losing the cats would be a tragedy, as one merchant notes. He’s more concerned about what will happen to the cats than his own family if certain developments go through. An artist who loves to paint and draw cats thinks that “maybe in 2 or 3 years, the cats will be gone.”
For all the negatives of having street cats — such as those that steal sardines from the fishmongers — most of the cats are welcomed, either just for their company or because they perform the much-needed traditional service of catching mice.
One credits cats for saving him from a “troubled” childhood, saying, “interacting only with people isn’t enough.” Another has taken to feeding abandoned kittens after a cat miraculously led him to a wallet full of money. Taking care of cats is something of a spiritual and moral duty, they feel, one that puts you back in touch with the natural world that might otherwise get lost in such a big city.
Like the cats themselves, the film brings some much-needed joy and contemplation to our sometimes hectic, frazzled modern lives.
“Kedi” is now playing in New York. It opens in Los Angeles on February 17.
Running Time: 79 minutes
Language: Turkish (w/English subtitles)
Director: Ceyda Torun
Cinematographer: Charlie Wuppermann
Producers: Ceyda Torun, Charlie Wuppermann