Istanbul-born director Ceyda Torun’s debut feature-length documentary Kedi follows the colourful lives of İstanbul’s endearing street cats and the human residents who love them. It is a cat’s-eye-view of Istanbul’s bustling, urban metropolis and the psychosocial environment of the city itself. The ubiquitous cats, or kediler, of Istanbul provide an eccentric look at an ancient yet rapidly changing city, its inhabitants and its human geography. Part travelogue, part documentary, the film is notable for the ways it utilises various perspectives with minimal dialogue, shifting seamlessly between the viewpoints of humans and cats who call the city home.
Istanbul may as well be known as the street cat capital of the world; a sprawling, crowded city of roughly 15 million people. We see the city through the eyes of seven feisty cats from various Istanbul neighborhoods: Duman, Bengü, Deniz, Gamsiz, Rat Catcher, Yellow and Psycho, each with their own story and individual personality. Just as important are the city’s many cat lovers, who reflect on how cats weave in and out of their lives. Over cups of çay, fishermen, craftsmen, artists and store owners have much to say about their relationship with the city’s felines. Some cats have helped the townsfolk (known as İstanbullular) out of tough times, some receive quiet companionship, some describe a deep spiritual connection with them and some have open tabs at every veterinary clinic in the area.
It’s tempting to brush Kedi off as as simply a “cat documentary”, but it is never cutesy enough for such a reductive description. The relationship between the city’s human and feline inhabitants is heartfelt without being saccharine. Kedi’s cats are never just cats, they are also metaphors for the changing nature of Istanbul (and Turkey as a nation itself), keepers and reminders of the city’s Ottoman history, once a crossroads of different peoples, religions and ethnicities. The film is more than just a simplistic celebration of the animal’s cuteness, it deftly weaves together the subtle ways cats touch upon people’s lives, philosophically and spiritually.
We are also shown how modern processes of gentrification, redevelopment and a dwindling lack of natural public space mean the city is becoming less hospitable towards its street cat occupants. “We’re more worried about what will happen to the cats than to us,” one man living in an area scheduled for re-development tells Torun. “If this neighborhood gets torn down, they won’t have anyone.” The demolition of ageing districts in favour of glossy, high-rise apartment housing and luxury hotels could spell an end to the city’s almost primordial relationship between cats and humans. One resident tells Torun’s camera that “in Istanbul, the cat is more than a cat—the cat embodies the indescribable chaos, the culture, and the uniqueness that is Istanbul”. This ineffable relationship between cats and humans in Istanbul is shown to stretch back to the city’s Ottoman past, during its former role as an important port city at the centre of two continents, where cats from all over the world were brought into city on cargo ships.
It might at first seem quizzical that a film about what it’s like to be a cat in Istanbul, a city that has only just recently witnessed a failed coup, should be making its way to our screens. The perspective of cats is not only a unique vantage point, but it is also an interesting way to build the profile of one of the world’s most populated cities, because it successfully inverts the growing, often Orientalist notion of Istanbul as a site of constant crisis or unrest. The film shows us everyday life at the street level; a display of affection and cohesion, worthy of our attention.
It’s very difficult not to get caught up in the visual beauty and photography of Kedi. Torun’s attention to detail and the sweeping aerial shots of the Bosphorus, Istanbul’s sumptuous mosques and skyline, are so hypnotic that there will be something here even for non-cat lovers. Despite, this it remains an unapologetic ode to the mystical, four legged creatures, who occupy both an important place in Islamic folklore and the social fabric of Istanbul. The cherished relationship between humans and cats in a rapidly moving but ancient environment is beautifully displayed here.