Initially, Ceyda Torun’s beautiful documentary Kedi seems like it’s about Istanbul’s stray cat population. They saunter past shops and cafes, perch high above sidewalks on building ledges, and sleep on sloping canopies. An illustrator, one of the human characters in Kedi, offers an origin story: during the Ottoman Empire, Norwegian ships would dock in a harbor in the city, near the modern-day neighborhood of Cihangir, and cats the sailors kept to control rats would run off the ships and explore the city. Many of these runaways never made it back to the ships and after several years, Istanbul was home to felines of every kind, roaming the narrow streets for decades to come.
Whether or not this apocryphal-sounding tale is true, it makes for a good story. It also provides a template for other stories told throughout the film. The illustrator remembers that he and his brother would make crosses for the graves in the cat cemetery behind their house because they had seen crosses in Westerns like The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. The boys’ dad scolded them and sent them to Q’uran school, even though, to the kids’ minds, they were just honoring the cats with cool symbols they had seen in a movie, symbols they thought were fit for the burials of outlaws.
Stories like this tell us about the stray cats, but more importantly, about their effects on people who come into contact with them. Shopkeeps, artists, pastry chefs, machinists, and fish mongers feed them, give them affection, offer housing, and maintain tabs at the local vets, even as the animals enjoy their freedom, coming and going, mostly as they please. Many of the speakers go on to discussions of metaphysics and philosophy.
While interviewees share their perspectives, the filmmakers present the cats’ daily lives as if from an animal’s perspective. Kedi opens on Sari, an orange tabby engaged in an epic trot down a café-lined avenue, through a market and into a building where she has kittens. Along her journey, captured at cat level by cinematographers Alp Korfali and Charlie Wuppermann, she picks up bits of food in her mouth to deliver to her brood. Animals are notoriously difficult to shoot in order to create a coherent and aesthetically pleasing narrative. Yet Torun and her crew craft several of these narrative sequences showing the interaction of seven of the cats and the humans who have relationships with them.
Some people portray the felines’ personalities and actions by referring to archetypes such as the mad housewife, the neighborhood thug, or the gentleman. The filmmakers match these characterizations, presenting Psikopat as she rations out her “husband”’s food and chases away other female cats who dare to enter her part of the neighborhood, or Gamsiz, the charming thug who visits the same woman’s window every day, knocking on her window using his paw in a very human-like way. Sometimes, as we hear such descriptions of the cats’ personalities or the caretakers’ interactions with the felines, editor Mo Stoebe creates impressionistic montages of cats in the city streets rather than relying on a series of talking heads. This rhythmic cutting, set to spare music by Kira Fontana, works with the more narrative sequences to develop the film’s themes.
These themes are multiple. For those city dwellers who ponder the cats, the semi-strays represent authenticity and healing. For the artists and the machinists, the animals are honest and reliable, providing the humans with a known emotional anchor in a slippery world, and for the shopkeep and the café owner, looking after the felines leads to their healing from life-threatening illnesses. A sailor who lost his ship in a storm cares for a cat who led him to a wallet full of money, which helped him survive until he could figure out a way to get a new ship.
The humans’ relationships with the furry beasts who purr, lounge, rove and pounce around the city form a collage of Istanbul, reflecting hopes, fears, and concerns. Some narrators interact with the creatures as a way of serving God, some provide care to disperse negative energy, and still others seek an experience of truth. The synthesis of these themes with handsomely framed shots of narrow streets and darting and frolicking cats makes it clear that Kedi‘s subject is Istanbul, a modern city that stretches back into ancient times.