Cats are everywhere in Ceyda Torun’s irresistible documentary Kedi – at markets and restaurants, the docks and wharves, on the ledges of very tall buildings, outside window panes, in trees, underfoot.
The title of Torun’s 2016 documentary itself means cat, but the film isn’t only about the strays that roam the streets of Istanbul by the thousands, hustling for food and back rubs. These cats have been memorialised in numerous articles, videos and photo essays, and are perhaps as iconic as Mumbai’s free-roaming dogs and New York’s rodents.
Torun goes beyond a study of feline behaviour. She has crafted a love poem for the Turkish capital through the bond between its mute residents and its vocal citizens. Kedi fits in well the genre of the city film, which explore urban habitats by focusing on a single aspect and, through the particular, make a generalised statement about the city’s character.
In Torun’s telling, Istanbul’s friendly, generous and poetic residents emerge as rivals for affection with the strays they shelter and feed. The Turkish capital, which has seen its fair share of political turmoil in the recent past, is depicted as one of the most loving and tender cities in the world. The cats win the moment merely by being there, while the humans conquer through their ability to make the felines an intrinsic part of their lives.
“People who don’t love animals cannot love other people,” says a store owner. Another declares, “Cats can’t fly away like birds. It’s our responsibility to take care of them.”
Kedi is streaming on the subscription channel YouTube Red. The documentary was premiered at the Istanbul Independent Film Festival in 2016. The word “heart-warming” frequently pops up in reviews, which is hardly surprising, given the affection with which cinematographers Charlie Wuppermann and Alp Korfali have filmed the animals. There are long shots, chase sequences, fight scenes, and numerous close-ups of fine specimens of the four-legged furballs, all set to Turkish pop songs and visuals of Istanbul straight out of tourism videos.
Torun tells her story through seven cats that have names, distinctive personalities, and unique ways of exercising their control over the humans they have chosen to attach themselves to. The clear winner is Psycho, a white-and black number described as a “fish thief, chaser of dogs (even pit bulls) and neighbourhood psychopath”.
Psycho is fiercely independent and abrasive towards competitors and prefers to steal her food rather than beg for it. In a remarkable sequence, one of many instances of the ability of the cinematographers to capture intimate feline behaviour, Psycho scares off a potential rival for her submissive partner’s affections. In that moment, Psycho appears to be nearly human.
A runner-up is Bengu, the cat that “nearly passes out” when petted. In each of the stories, Torun ensures that the personalities of the cats as described by their carers are backed up by matching footage.
The documentary leaves one question unanswered and another partially resolved. Is the huge stray population in Istanbul a result of the city council’s failure to neuter the cats? That is certainly the case in Mumbai, where the healthy canine population has emerged out of the municipal corporation’s lack of attention to the management of the stray dog population. This has resulted in scenes similar to Kedi – packs of strays patrolling the streets and being semi-adopted and fed and sheltered by dog lovers. If every building watchman has a stray dog he can call a pet, it’s because there are enough canines around.
Another aspect of Istanbul peeks into view but is barely explored. The gentrification of neighbourhoods has resulted in towers replacing the friendlier low-rises where cats can flourish. Torun includes this reality of Istanbul in her film but doesn’t dwell on it, turning the focus back on more beauty, more love, and more satisfied purring.
The recent move towards authoritarianism in Turkey is indirectly addressed through the admiration expressed for the cat’s independent ways, its “fighting spirit” and survival tactics, and its ability to “help us regain our sense of humour and rekindle our joy of life”, as one resident says. This is as far removed as it gets from Orhan Pamuk’s conception of Istanbul as a city of huzun, “a state of mind that is ultimately as life-affirming as it is negating”.
In one of many non-huzun moments, a resident tells a long-winded story about how a cat saved his life. The gist of the anecdote, which is mirrored by many others in the film, has the quality of an encounter with God. Whoever doesn’t believe the story is a heathen, the man declares. Fortunately for cat lovers, Ceyda Torun counts herself among the believers.