It sounds slight, but the delightful documentary Kedi – a look at cats living on the streets of Istanbul – might end up being one of the most entertaining, relaxing, and contemplative films of the year. Not just a chance to spend some quality time with some felines that are brimming with personality, Ceyda Torun’s film also looks at how we interact with our common social spaces and the subtle things we can do to make our world a better place.
Cats are a part of daily life in Istanbul, with hundreds of the creatures roaming the streets like they own the place since the days of the Ottoman Empire when they were first used to chase off enormous sewer rats. While some see these creatures as a nuisance (and indeed some of them can be), many local residents derive a great amount of joy from interacting with them on a daily, regular basis. Many of these cats are loved and cared for in various ways. Some people go out of their way to make sure they’re well fed or that they get trips to the vet. A fisherman who owes his life and mental health to the kindness of a cat is shown taking it upon himself to care for a litter of motherless kittens in need. Many local business owners – particularly those in the restaurant, food service, or cafe industry – have felines that they consider beloved regulars. Urban planning and expansion have continually placed these animals in jeopardy, so it’s nice to see some people trying to nurture and help them in the same way some would care for fellow homeless human beings.
At the moment, headlines across the world will tell you that Istanbul (and Turkey in general) has become a sometimes scary place to live, making the relationships between locals and animals as depicted in Kedi all the more poignant and relevant. Many of the people who speak with Ceyda throughout Kedi about their affection for these cats say that they’re simply treating these animals the way they would want to be treated if they were creatures in need of assistance or kindness. Cats are independent and persnickety by nature, but that doesn’t make them any less deserving of charity or kindness. Their sometimes aloof attitude also makes them the perfect creatures to interact with humans as a passing part of day to day life. By interacting briefly with each other throughout the day, a human gets a moment of companionship and the cat gets something similar while maintaining its seemingly biological need for autonomy; a nicely symbiotic relationship that’s put best by a fish market owner who says that those who can’t love animals also can’t love humans.
True to its loving nature, Kedi follows a select group of cats and humans around the city, and doesn’t give into any criticism of the animals. The film doesn’t need any negativity, as Ceyda clearly and concisely settles on a gentle, loving tone throughout. The approach might sound simplistic, but it’s deceptively complex. Documentarians by nature have to create some sort of rapport with their subjects over a period of time, and the flighty nature of cats seems to run counterintuitive to that approach. What Ceyda ultimately displays isn’t just a great work of love, but of patience and understanding. The viewer gets to know some of these cats as if they were friends (or insomuch as once can actually know what’s going on in the mind and heart of a cat).
The loving Bengu goes back to the same haunts he did every day as a kitten. The optimistic, but tough Gamsiz keeps getting into fights, but is still willing to accept love on his own terms. Smoky politely hangs around outside a cafe, never begging for food from the customers outside, but goes berserk whenever the employees are seen going near his favourite decadent treats. Some still work as expert mouse hunters who dutifully show up to work without being asked twice. They find shelter in warehouse boxes, abandoned styrofoam crates, and atop leaf covered awnings. They’re territorial by nature, but also capable of appreciating and sometimes even repaying the kindness and understanding that they have been shown. Cats and humans both think they run the world, but Ceyda’s film shows how harmonious relationships can be forged without a distinct claim of ownership.
Kedi looks for and finds beauty in everything it sees, and Ceyda expertly illustrates how caring for the life of another creature can be beneficial to one’s mental health. It’s an entrancing experience that goes beyond saying what the internet already knows: that cats can be cute, awkward, sometimes silly creatures. Not so much a plea for the adoption of cats as a look at how we perceive the world around us, Ceyda’s film begs us all to stop for a moment and appreciate our surroundings for what they are and not just what we wish them to be.
Kedi opens on February 17 at The Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema in Toronto; February 24 at the Vic Theatre in Victoria, the Hyland Cinema in London, and Carbon Arc in Halifax; March 10 at The Globe Cinema in Calgary, and March 13 at Vancity Theatre in Vancouver.
Check out the trailer for Kedi: