Cats are divisive little creatures. It’s rare you will speak to someone who doesn’t have an opinion about them, with comments usually split between deep suspicion of their unblinking eyes and overwhelming affection towards their beautiful fur coats. Yet, they do not stand out as an obvious choice of topic for a documentary, or strike you as being particularly cinematic. Director Ceyda Torun’s debut film, Kedi, challenges that perception with a film that has caught festival and cinema goers by surprise, turning it into one of the highest grossing documentaries of the year so far.
Those arriving in Istanbul for the fur-st (no apologies for that one) time, may be struck not by the famous Blue Mosque or the Topkapı Palace, but by the endless parade of stray cats that can be found roaming in almost every corner of the city. It’s a part of everyday life for those who live there, as generations of cats have been present for thousands of years. It’s no surprise, given the country’s location to North Africa, and that its Muslim population are encouraged to warm to the little moggies through the Hadith teachings of Prophet Muhammad.
Torun’s film is much more than a simple Attenborough-style focus on the lives of cats. As the director says herself, the relationship between the people, city and the cats are so intertwined it would have been impossible to have made a film without looking at all three. 180 hours of footage were gathered by Torun and her six man crew as they scurried from one location to another. They settled on the lives of seven cats (not nine?), each of whom have their own distinct personality, while we also hear from those who feed and take care of them when they drop by.
These include Psikopat, a cat described by locals as “the neighbourhood psychopath” who chases away any female rivals, making sure her male partner knows who’s boss. Duman is classed “A Gentleman” because of his good manners, never harassing customers for food at a local restaurant and refusing to set foot inside the establishment. When he’s hungry, he’ll simply paw at the window for food. Aslan Parçasi, dubbed “The Hunter” roams the docks at night, chasing down rats, much to the delight of the restaurant owners. Essentially, we are watching cats mostly being cats but with the camera slung down low to ground level, following them over cars, into trees and onto rooftops, it brings alive their amazing agility and reminds us of the wild nature that sears through their DNA.
As we get more gooey-eyed over these adorable felines, we are slowly drawn into a wider story of how lives have been changed for the better through their interactions. Kedi also serves as an insider’s view of this glorious old city, turning away from the tourist spots to hear from the working people that keep it ticking over. We head down to the docks, through the cafés and shops and into the market, hearing their fears about the looming threat of gentrification and the changing face of the city around them. Not just for themselves, but for the cats and what it means for them too. Despite not purposely intellectualising the subject matter with experts of any kind, a number of ordinary people we encounter roll out some wonderfully poetical and thoughtful ruminations of the human/cat dynamic.
It would be remiss not to give mention to a soundtrack that charms its way into your affection as much as any of the cats do. Kira Fontana leaves her mark with a memorable score in her first film, accompanied by a breadth of songs that cover old Turkish pop classics through to rare Eartha Kitt beauties. Seeing the beautiful city of Istanbul through the eyes of these wondrous creatures reveals more humanity than you might expect from a documentary about our mysterious little furry friends.