“Without the cat, Istanbul would lose part of its soul.”
There’s an undeniable grace within the frames of Ceyda Torun’s remarkable documentary Kedi. Brimming with empathy and understanding, Kedi tracks the stray cats that wander freely through the streets of Istanbul, and the compassionate humans who care for them. It’s beautiful to behold.
Some may feel a need to bluntly think of Kedi as a feature-length version of a cute cat video on YouTube, but Torun’s film is so much more than a showcase for adorable felines. There’s something deeper coursing through this film; something spiritual. “God brings us closer to him in different ways,” an interview subject says at one point, referring to the simple yet complex joy that can be derived from the act of stopping to pet a stray cat on the street.
Torun and cinematographer Charlie Wuppermann get down low, with cameras tracking a variety of cats as they slink through the streets looking for food or attention. The cats are mostly strays yet have humans they return to frequently — from a cat that knows to paw at the window of a cafe when it wants to be fed, to a cat that climbs up to a second-floor apartment to be let in by its owner. Cats that haunt restaurants by the waterfront in search of rats to hunt; cats that sleep and eat and seem genuinely unperturbed by the humans around them. There’s no fear here; no skittishness that some cold, angry person might kick or swat at a cat to get it away. Indeed, there are several instances where, when a cat is being disruptive — such as when it’s chewing on the tassels of a rug for sale at an outdoor market — a human will politely but gently shoo it away, and not seem very annoyed when the feline comes sauntering back a few moments later.
It’s that prevailing sense of kindness that makes Kedi so special. One segment of the film follows a man who goes out of his way to travel down back alleys and waterfront haunts to bring food to hordes of cats. He tells the filmmakers he had a nervous breakdown once, and caring for cats was the only thing that made him recover. “They make you fall in love again,” he confesses.
The world has felt colder lately. Coarser. Crueler. Life goes on, but it does so in dull, unfeeling dreariness. Kindness and compassion in particular feel in short supply. Kedi is a reminder that there is, on occasion, a light that can get through. Ever since the events that shaped and dramatically changed the world in 2016 going into 2016, those who write about entertainment have been quick to proclaim a particular film, or TV show, or piece of music, is exactly “what we need right now.” The cure for what ails us; the light at the end of the tunnel. I will not make such a claim — it seems too broad; too blunt. It is a generalization that does no one any real good. So while Kedi is not a film that will fix what is broken, or mend what can never be mended, it is a wonderful balm for the soul.
One interview subject comments how stopping to pet and understand a cat is akin to communicating with aliens — trying to bridge the gap between two species, and converse when languages are not the same. You can’t help but be reminded of recent sci-fi hit Arrival, which explored a similar situation. But Kedi isn’t metaphorical or hypothetical science fiction — it’s reality. And there is no greater truth from an advanced species to be learned here. Instead, the humans that interact and care for the cats here do so because it is the correct thing to do. In caring for these felines, these people are confirming their own humanity.
As the camera follows cats through streets, or up onto rooftops; and as drone cameras hover above Istanbul, looking down at a city that has nurtured these creatures for thousands of years, a calm clarity sets in. There’s something pure and beautiful about stopping to look down at a cat purring up at you, as one interviewee says. “Those are moments we are lucky…they remind us we are alive.” Sometimes it helps to be reminded of our humanity.