The TDF Interview: Ceyda Torun

Ceyda Torun’s debut, Kedi, is one that has taken many festivals and audiences by surprise, becoming one of the highest grossing documentaries of the year so far, with only Disney’s Born in China and, I Am Not Your Negro outperforming it at the box office.

She returned to her home city of Istanbul to film her first love, which are the thousands of stray cats that wander throughout many roads and streets. The stories of seven cats and their relationships with the people that care for them brings into focus not only how much both animal and humans receive from these unique bonds, but their relationships to the city as a whole.

Ceyda was in London recently ahead of the release of the film in UK cinemas on the 30th June, and we sat down to talk about just why there are so many cats on the streets of Istanbul, her eagerness to reveal a different side to the city and, what lies ahead for her as a filmmaker.

Hi Ceyda, thanks for taking the time to speak to us.

Of course, no problem.

After the recent political unrest, Turkey has been painted negatively through the media. Aside from the cat narrative, the film felt like an ‘insiders’ view of Istanbul, giving an honest and more positive look at life in the city. Was that intentional?                                                            

Absolutely. I’ve always been annoyed by how Istanbul is portrayed in other films, usually foreign films who use the location to portray a one dimensional view of the city. But this is normal of course. This why when you go to visit a city or town, you want to do it with locals. You want to see it from the perspective of the people who live there, as opposed to the five places you have to go to, according to the tour guides. As you see in the film, we spend very little time in the old part of town, which is the more iconic part of Istanbul, and there’s very few visual references to the blue mosque (Sultan Ahmed Mosque) or Hagia Sophia. The most touristy thing you see is Galata Tower, which not every tourist knows - and it’s one of my favourite historic places in the city – and the Bosphorus. I wanted to take people on a personal trip to Istanbul, and I wanted to create a multi-faceted profile of the city as I know it and how my family and friends know and love it. I wanted everyone else who doesn’t know Istanbul too well to see it differently. Especially recently because the news have been predominantly negative and showing only one side of the city.

The film is as much of a love letter to cats as it is to the people that keep Istanbul running - the market place, fishermen, cafe and shop owners - as well as the changing face of Istanbul through gentrification. How do you see the connection between all three?

The fun thing that came out of making and working on the project was every day I learnt more about the city and more about the people. I’m a generally a friendly person and I do try to strike up conversations with people that I’ve encountered from all walks of life but I don’t often have an ice-breaker like cats to talk to people about! It’s amazing how I got to talk to people beyond the typical “hello, thank you, goodbye” exchange that you would normally have, without offending them, or without making them feel awkward about it.

The three elements – the city, the people and the cats – are so integrated and involved in each other’s existence, that it would have been impossible to do one without the other. It would feel odd if you were to make a film about Istanbul and not include the cats. They’ve been there for so long and they’re engrained in everyone’s memory and daily life. For the people, I think this is probably the whole point as well. When you get to know people they reveal sides of themselves that you fall in love with. It makes me happy to hear that someone in a completely far away city in the world feels an emotional connection to somebody in a film, even if they’ll never meet. That’s all I could ask for, to highlight our similarities and our points of connection. Especially nowadays when we’re often reminded of how different we really are, which I think is incorrect. Actually we’re more similar than we are different.

The film is surprisingly poetical, as we hear people philosophising about their relationships with cats and we meet those who have been 'saved' by their relationships - did you have to shape the narrative as you filmed, or did you find these people to fit your original vision?

We learnt very quickly that we should film the cats first and then interview the people about their interpretation of the cat, rather than film them, tell us what the cat does and then never be able to film the cat! When you’re making a documentary you are constantly adjusting things to fit what you can or cannot get visually. In the very early stages of the project we didn’t really know what kind of film it could be. We thought it could be a March of the Penguins, or a Planet Earth style film but we realised we didn’t have the budget or the time to do that. It was during that research phase that we would randomly approach people on the street about a cat they were interacting with and they revealed this poetical and philosophical way that they were interpreting their relationship.

It was myself and Charlie (Wuppermann – co-producer and cinematographer), who doesn’t speak English, so I would have to translate on the spot. When I translated into English the floral nature of what people were saying was more obvious than when I heard it in Turkish, which is the beauty of language isn’t it? So, it was a mixture of that and doing interviews with philosophers, artists, professors and thinkers of all kinds who had a love of cats and therefore had thought about certain things that revealed a more poetical and philosophical side. I think Turkish and Mediterranean people are a little more inclined to be spiritual, but I think if anyone gets to share the same space with an animal like a cat then they have a different perspective anyway.

There's a large Muslim population in cities like Cairo and Istanbul, and cats are mostly preferred to dogs within Islam, so along with the wildcat’s migration from North Africa, do you think that is why there such a huge population of cats present in the city?

Absolutely and coupled with the fact that Turkey is a peninsular made up of fishermen communities. There’s a more direct relationship with the fishermen and the cats which is interesting too. The Islamic element is also very interesting because the main reference people gave to me for justifying their devotion to cats was the multiple stories of the Prophet Muhammad’s interaction with cats, especially one in particular. I think there’s something very significant in that there’s this attribution of the teachings from Muhammad, as opposed to the generalised and institutionalised religion of Islam. It’s this idea of respecting the other, which is really one of the great teachings of the Prophet Muhammad.

You must have had to rely on the good grace of the locals to get access to the cats, as they slink around below, behind and above our own lives. How easy was it to track and keep tabs on them?

It was a challenge! We were a compact crew in a mini-van and we would jet across the city and people would call us and say “Psycho’s back!” (One of the cats) or we’d call in the morning at the various places we wanted to film. Sometimes we’d get there before anyone else arrived, or before the shops were even open, but at other times we’d call throughout the day and ask if any of the cats were around and they’d tell us either not yet, or they’d just left, stuff like that. There were a lot of cats that we had leads on but could never capture because they simply didn’t show up.

The cats are surprisingly cinematic, despite not really doing much beyond being just cats. How did they react to be filmed and having these humans following them round the city in a mini-van?

They did not react positively to any camera rig that moved on its own. We made all these remote control cars with cameras attached to them and they preferred it if we were attached to the camera. They seemed to appreciate the lens and were interested in making eye contact. But this is something that cats do, which is unnerving and creepy to some people. It’s very unique that they look at you without demanding anything. More often than not, it’s just a matter of recognising your presence.

With the cameras they did the same thing. I had a very strict rule that if we approached one and they ran away, that meant that they weren’t giving us permission. They did the same thing over and over, giving us multiple versions of the same action without much coercion at all, which we found it fascinating. Especially the cat towards the end of the film, that walks along the edge of the rooftop – he did it five or six times and we were amazed that he kept hitting his mark, whatever mark it is you could put in front of the sunset! They responded really positively because they’re used to people and our cameras weren’t imposing. And people left us alone too because they didn’t think we were doing anything spectacular!

You must have been a huge cat lover to begin with, so what did you take away from making this film?

I am a huge cat person but I have to say I am a huge street cat person! These cats on the streets of Istanbul are my first love because there’s no other cat like them. Their sense of warmth and personality is completely different. So, I can’t even generalise and say that I’m a general cat person. I think it’s possible to get to know a cat and not like them. This was my first documentary and technically it was liberating and eye-opening to work with people who are not actors and cats, to use lighting that’s available and not be in such a controlled environment that you find with narrative story-telling. It was incredibly informative, and I’m really grateful that I did it and I recommend that every filmmaker does some kind of documentary in their career because it teaches you so much about filmmaking and storytelling in general.

In terms of the actual experience, I realised two things: one was just how much I had stopped paying attention a lot of things as I grew up and became an adult and was kept busy with things, compared to how I used to look at the world as a child. And this film is highly influenced with that kind of childlike perspective that as adults we forget to keep, simply because we’re too busy. And secondly, it was also a politically charged time in the city while we were filming, and there was a bleak outlook for the future. When we stopped filming and we had to return to the States I remember feeling there was hope for the future and humanity because at their essence, the majority of people are kind and loving and I think we’re going to be ok. I wanted that feeling to come across in the film because we need it now more than ever and need it lifted off our shoulders a little bit.

Lastly, what have you got coming up next?

Yes quite a few things. I do want to do a spin-off of Kedi with other animals in different parts of the world. I think a really nice way to get to know a group of people in a certain place is through the animals that they deal with and there are some unique situations around the world. I have a narrative feature that I’m working on next and another documentary after that about Sufism that I’m very excited about as well.

Kedi is released in UK cinemas on June 30


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