Variety: A Magical and Remarkable Documentary

A magical and remarkable documentary about the free-roaming feline population of Istanbul.

Early in “Kedi,” Ceyda Torun’s splendidly graceful and quietly magical documentary about the multifaceted feline population of Istanbul, a human inhabitant of the city notes: “Dogs think people are God, but cats don’t. Cats know that people act as middlemen to God’s will. They’re not ungrateful. They just know better.” All of which might explain why so many of the movie’s four-legged subjects come across not as feral orphans who rely on the kindness of strangers, but rather as slumming royals who occasionally deign to interact with two-legged acolytes.

Indeed, another interviewee here swears that, after his fishing boat was damaged during a storm, a beneficent cat led him to a lost wallet containing just enough money to pay for repairs. “Whoever doesn’t believe this story,” the grateful beneficiary proclaims, “is a heathen in my book.”

Trust me: “Kedi” will make you a believer.

Torun, a Turkish-born filmmaker now based in the United States, and cinematographer Charlie Wuppermann, her partner in the production company Termite Films, take their audience on a leisurely yet purposeful journey throughout Istanbul (where Torun was raised) to examine a local phenomenon dating back to the heyday of the Ottoman Empire: Thousands of cats roam freely virtually everywhere and anywhere, peacefully co-existing with humans who learned long ago not to assume they are the masters in this situation.

Most of the felines are strays, proudly independent but more than willing to accept food and favors (and, more important, attentive petting) from the humans they choose to “adopt.” In turn, the humans — men, women, and children of all ages and backgrounds — admire and accept the autonomy of the cats. Even those who routinely feed, groom, and occasionally fret over the four-legged vagabonds who wander in and out of their lives respect the animals’ privacy — and freely admit that humans aren’t the only ones who benefit from this symbiotic relationship. “They absorb all your negative energy,” a shopkeeper says of the cats who sporadically show up at her door. “They do me good.”

Another interviewee claims that petting a cat can be as spiritually soothing as fingering prayer beads. But take care. “If you pet another cat,” he says while referencing his frequent guest, “she’ll get jealous and sulk.” Another problem to consider: As ambitious construction projects change the face of Istanbul, cats are displaced from their lairs whenever old buildings, or entire neighborhoods, are eliminated.

Cats are praised for everything from their therapeutic value to their usefulness as mousers throughout “Kedi.” But these heartfelt testimonials, delivered largely by unnamed admirers, don’t take up nearly as much screen time as footage devoted to the cats themselves. Lengthy, loving closeups alternate with remarkably fluid tracking shots as Torun and Wuppermann consider the elegant poise, casual indolence, and gritty resourcefulness of cats (and their kittens) going about their everyday lives.

The beautifully spare musical score by Kira Fontana provides the perfect accompaniment for what gradually emerges as a profoundly affecting meditation, at once dreamy and precise, on a force of nature — several forces of nature, actually, with paws and tails — surviving and thriving in an industrialized world.

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Screenhub: The Ultimate Cat Video

“Without the cat, Istanbul would lose part of its soul,” one of the city’s residents advises in the opening minutes of Kedi. His statement may sound like the expectedly fond fawning of a feline fancier; however it is actually a reflection of life at street level in Turkey’s most populous centre. As people go about their days, so does a sizeable contingent of meowing creatures, continuing a tradition of roaming freely through the ancient metropolis that dates back thousands of years.

On the pavement, they scurry in search of food. Loitering outside of cafes, they warm to coffee-sipping clientele. Many stalk around the upper reaches of buildings, staring down at the movement below them. One sleeps on a canvas awning above a fishmonger’s storefront, descending at an opportune moment to battle the birds for scraps. Another keeps a seaside restaurant free from rodents by night, then rests on a rocky platform by the shore by day. Yet another still climbs a tree to access the balcony of an apartment inhabited by another cat. Proving hungry but polite, another paws at the window of a deli looking for gourmet cheese and meat, yet won't enter the premises.

Every animal is an individual, and is treated as such. And just as no tabby's tale is the same as the other selected specimens of its species, neither is the film's approach to Bengü, Deniz, Duman, Gamsiz, Rat Catcher, Yellow and Psycho's stories. As guided by debut feature director Ceyda Torun (short Consuming Love), cinematographers Alp Korfali (Baskin) and Charlie Wuppermann (A Country Called Home) capture the cute, chaotic and curious scenes of cat activity from an array of angles. Sometimes, the crisp imagery peers down from above, or takes a moment to gaze into the faces of the movie's stars. Often, it watches the critters’ fluid movements from a human’s viewpoint — and, just as frequently, it weaves hand-held and cat-mounted cameras underneath tables, up and down walls, and along the ground for a kitty's-eye vantage. 

Accordingly, as littered with slivers of historical and cultural information, Kedi strives to capture just what it is like to be one of the thousands of mousers in Istanbul today, particularly as the city endeavours to usher in a new era of redevelopment in areas typically plentiful with furry, four-legged friends. More than that, the documentary imparts an informative, endearing and amusing chronicle of everyday existence for the kindly folks that come into each animal's orbit. And, as the two perspectives combine in every revealing vignette, as perceptively edited together by Mo Stoebe (State of Control) and set to the playful, authentic music of first-time film composer Kira Fontana, they provide a portrait of not only co-existence, but of the bustling locale around them.

Indeed, while many an online clip has demonstrated the instant entertainment that can result from simply pointing a camera in a cat’s direction and watching it go about its daily business, Kedi splices the usual emotional reaction such antics garner with an ethnographic-like mission. Affection radiates from the documentary, but so does an insight into why a purring, prowling kitty can evoke such a response. Though no definitive answer arises, the feature's joyous attitude, relaxed pacing and freewheeling structure offers the closest approximation it can. Yes, Kedi is an unashamed love letter to the compelling creatures at its centre, but, peppered with wisdom and warmth, it's also more than just the ultimate cat video.

Rating: 4 stars out of 5

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