by Anjali Ravi, Communications Intern
When film director Ceyda Torun was a child, the cats of Istanbul traversed with her through the streets. They were her companions, neither bound to her nor separate. They guided seven-year-old Torun around the city and her own backyard, teaching her about courage, coexistence, and boundaries.
Torun grew up and moved to Los Angeles, but she never forgot Istanbul’s self-proclaimed cultural symbol. With cinematographer Charlie Wuppermann, she directed the 2016 feature-length documentary film Kedi – Turkish for “cat.” IndieWire described the film as “the Citizen Kane of cat documentaries.” Time magazine penned it as one of the top ten movies of 2017. The film even boasts a whopping 98% on Rotten Tomatoes – so what about Kedi has critics and viewers leaning into the screen?
Cats have lived in Istanbul for thousands of years. In an interview with The Guardian, Torun notes the ubiquity of Istanbul’s feline population: “There’s nobody here that doesn’t have a memory of cats: no grandmother, no generation has been here without cats, so they’re ingrained in our collective memory.” Among an ever-shifting political and social climate, these creatures have remained a constant.
“The cat embodies the indescribable chaos, the culture, and the uniqueness that is the essence of Istanbul,” says a voice at the start of the film. But among locals, the cat is also anthropomorphic. The website for Kedi lends profiles for each cat featured on the film. Sari, for example, is the hustler and mother who “doesn’t give a sh*t.” Psikopat, the jealous housewife. Gamsiz, the happy-go-lucky neighborhood man.
These cats have character. By likening them to the people around us – the neighbors, friends, and family that we meet day-to-day – they take on new meaning and intimacy in our lives. Experiencing these animals has also allowed the residents of Istanbul to contemplate their interactions with one another. Of Sari, one woman says, “She has qualities people should have . . . she doesn’t compromise her freedom.”
During the production of Kedi, street cats strode the frames with dignity. “If we approached the cat and she didn’t want to be filmed, we left,” explains Torun to The Guardian. “If she stuck around that meant she was giving us permission to shoot.” The authority given to cats is willing and necessary; in humanizing these creatures, people sustain their own humanity.
Some may feed or pet the cats and expect something in return – a show of affection, a loyalty to come back the next day. But still more seem to agree upon the sincerity of a cat’s unapologetic behavior and the way they provide, without intent, for those who wander into their paths. “People miss their kids, right? I miss her,” says one local about the cat Bengü, whose role has become familial to the workingmen in her industrial manufacturing neighborhood. “If there is afterlife,” says another, “I want to meet her [the cat] again, not my grandmother.”
Studies have shown that interacting with animals can increase people’s level of the hormone oxytocin, which boosts cell growth and helps us feel happy and trusting. Because of this, it’s no surprise that petting the cats also seems to give many residents of Istanbul a sense of security. Language becomes simplified to gesture, and touch. The small, honest, and fruitful encounters with these cats have calming and therapeutic effects. One man interviewed during the film had a nervous breakdown in 2002, only to be “cured” by his relationships with feline friends.
The symbiosis of cats and people is a lesson on empathy, and Kedi is a portrait of kindness. After making the film, both Torun and Wuppermann questioned whether they could justify making a documentary about Istanbul’s cats, as opposed to the city’s Syrian refugees or the country’s political upheavals. Aren’t those issues more important? What Torun came to realize was that her “love letter to the city and the cats” could be a form of resistance – a way of immortalizing the beauty of Istanbul through all the turmoil.
Now she lives beside an eleven-year-old tabby with the personality of a middle-aged man. “It’s kind of wonderful,” she says, “to experience life with another being like this.”
Alley Cat Rescue is leading in the way in promoting humane and compassionate care for ALL cats.