Film and TV

Tracking the Street Cats of Istanbul, Kedi Reveals a City's Humanity

Courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories
“A cat meowing at your feet, looking up at you, is life smiling at you,” says one of the interviewees in Kedi, and who am I to argue? Ceyda Torun’s daydream-like documentary explores a subject near and dear to my heart: the street cats of Istanbul, those countless, fearless denizens of Turkey’s biggest, most bustling metropolis. Anyone who’s visited the city has probably noticed that they’re everywhere you look, fed and cared for by small networks of waiters, bakers, grocers, shopkeepers, wandering merchants and tourists. Years ago, when I used to go back to Turkey more frequently, I would always check in on a couple of felines on a particular road in Beyoglu. I did this not because I was a cat person, although I would eventually become one, but because it provided a sense of continuity in a city that otherwise seemed ever-changing and impossible.

Torun’s film lovingly conveys that idea — that the cats of Istanbul help humanize and make sense of an uncontrollable place. She follows a number of cats as they make their way through their respective hoods, and by “follow” I mean she literally follows them, her camera low and gliding smoothly behind them, close to the ground, as if they had their own little kitty Steadicam operators and boom-mic operators. Some are layabouts. Some are insistent foragers. Some just want to be petted. One spends all day catching mice at a seaside fish restaurant. Torun matches those close shots of the streets with aerial footage of the city itself, hovering over Istanbul’s quilt-like expanse of roofs in every conceivable architectural style.

The director also spends some time interviewing the cats’ ... well, “owners” isn’t exactly the right word, is it? But the kitties of Istanbul do have their human associates, the people who feed them, watch out for them and take care of them when they’re sick. Indeed, more than anything, the film is about these relationships. We understand that these folks need these cats as much as, or perhaps more than, the cats need them.

We don’t learn much about these caretakers, though a few background details and cutaways give us clues: an antique store here, a fisherman’s boat there, a baker’s oven there. An interviewee tells us how she only found the way toward healing her own wounds by healing the cats around her. Another talks about how the cats allow her to find some sense of calm and hope amid the chaos of life. “They remind us that we’re alive,” another says.

There’s something missing here, however, but I think it’s been deliberately hidden. Torun’s film offers little sense of the current political reality of Istanbul, a city that’s been racked by terror attacks and protests and that is, in effect, at war with itself. You could argue that Kedi seeks a more timeless approach. There’s very little politics or history of any sort to be found in the film.

Courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories
One interviewee does speculate about why there are so many cats of such diverse breeds in one particular part of the city — they probably came off the many boats sailing through the Bosphorus — but that’s about it. (I don’t blame Torun for not getting too deep into the history, because otherwise she’d also have to reckon with the fact that more than a century ago, Istanbul, then known as Constantinople, was famous for its stray dogs; what happened to them is a sad, shadowy tale I won’t get into here.)

But conflict and unrest have always defined Istanbul, and if you look closely enough, these forces do seem to be lurking somewhere beneath the film’s placid surface. But it’s also a fact that Istanbul has never been at peace; conflict and unrest define it. One interviewee talks about the death of the city’s parks, which may evoke for some the Gezi Park uprising of 2013.

Those protests initially erupted over the government’s decision to level one of the city’s remaining green spaces to make way for a giant, garish shopping complex. We’re told of steel and glass buildings going up and changing the city, pushing the cats (and, let’s face it, also the people) out. There are those right now who wish to turn Istanbul into a variation on Dubai, all shopping centers and office complexes and alt-brutalist shrines to money and power. And guess what? They’re not big on stray cats in Dubai.

Kedi stands as a subtle, gentle rebuke to such politico-architectural follies. And by showing the citizens of this troubled city at their most generous, it suggests that a social fabric that often seems like it’s rapidly fraying — at least to many of us now on the outside — still endures. There is a part of me that wishes Kedi had more context, that it further clarified and spelled out some of the threats facing this beautiful city and its people. But in its own, pleasantly dreamy and lilting way, the film embodies what it preaches: As life gets rougher, people endure not by hardening themselves even further, but by continuing to find the freedom to be kind. In Istanbul, the chaos never really stops. Kedi slyly reminds us that the humanity too has always been there.
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