During the 1920s, art flourished through image experimentation and manipulation on canvases. Futurism, New Expressionism, Constructivism, and many other “ism” lenses were used to conceptualize the modern advancements that were taking place in the cities. Some of the Avant Garde directors of the time aimed their camera eye on their respective cities, documenting the impact of modernity on the city and its citizens. Dziga Vertov and Walter Ruttmann were two such visionaries who captured a day in the life of their respective cities into films known as city symphonies, The Man with a Movie Camera (1929) and Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927), respectively. Because these were silent films, the directors used images that were universal while examining the flux between tradition and progress.
Since those early city films, as the urban landscape became more familiar with the passing decades, the more the city receded as a primary character. There were cinematic exceptions – Jacque Tati’s Playtime (1967) of an idealized fictional Parisian city or Ridley Scott’s reimaged Los Angeles in Blade Runner (1982) – but, for the most part, the examination of a changing cityscape was largely ignored; however, in the opening months of 2017, a film hearkened back to early film pioneers as it provided viewers with a decidedly different perspective of Istanbul. Kedi, which means cat or feline in Turkish, was directed by Ceyda Torun, who was originally from Istanbul herself. In witnessing a “cat renaissance” on the Internet in recent years, she fondly remembered the street cats of her childhood, which led her to make a documentary about cats in Istanbul.
Torun was joined by cinematographer Charlie Wuppermann. They spent three months in the ancient city in which they captured 180 hours of footage following cats along busy metropolitan avenues to narrow alleys. Wuppermann devised camera rigging to capture a cat-eye view of the city from their perspective. The filmmakers talked with several Istanbulites, interviewing the individuals about their relationships to the street cats. Along with the editing skills of Mo Stoebe (Black Hawk Down, Out in India) and an original score by Kira Fontana – accompanied by a variety of Turkish music genres such as rock, classical, and traditional – the result was a gorgeous kaleidoscope of images from aerials shots of the city reminiscent of Italian painter Canaletto’s city views of Venice to extreme close ups of cat eyes full of life and wisdom, all framed as a day and a night in the life of Istanbul.
Kedi was easy to miss. It had a limited release in the independent cinema houses at the beginning of the year. With positive reviews from major publications creating interest in the film, additional screenings were added, but it was still extremely limited. The film poster of a beautiful cat only revealed a part of the story. Yes, the film was about cats, but it was also about the connection between feline and human as an interwoven relationship that transcends borders, such as language, culture, ethnicities, and species. A heartwarming film for sure, but also about learning about oneself, finding purpose, and value.
In Istanbul, the cat is more than just a cat.
The cat embodies the indescribable chaos, the culture,
and the uniqueness that is the essence of Istanbul.
Without the cat, Istanbul would lose a part of its soul.
In the opening minutes, viewers are introduced to Sari the yellow and white tabby nicknamed “The Hustler” because she is looking for food for herself and her kittens. In onscreen interviews and in voice-overs, a shopkeeper explains the importance of Sari in her life – a constant in the otherwise chaos of life. A fisherman who feeds fish to street cats along the docks states, “The love of animals is a different kind of love. People who don’t love animals can’t love people either.”
Bengü or “The Lover” is a beautiful grey/brown female tabby who lives in an industrial neighborhood. Her softness and propensity for purring contently is juxtaposed against the harshness of her surroundings. A metalworker talks about the love of cats that developed in him as a result of Bengü. As he rubs her chin and behind her ears, he adds that cats have positive energy and humans need to be caring stewards in return.
Sitting at the side of one of the busy city streets, a thirty-something woman with long, flowing dreadlocks waxed philosophically, stating, “Petting a cat gives me a peculiar sense of security. Even though we don’t speak each other’s language, we immediately form a shared language.” In a montage of cats and their interaction with young children to hunched elderly persons, the connections were the same: smiles formed on faces from the random encounters and that sense of security.
Old buildings with red, tiled roofs and Turkish shop signs are distinguishable indicators of the “foreign-ness” of Istanbul for many moviegoers, but looking closer, one can see there are a lot of similarities. Wharf slips of fishermen boats, shopping districts, public transport hubs, and farmers’ markets are city staples easily recognizable elsewhere around the world. Istanbul has the added benefit of cats. In fact, the connections between the cats and the citizens that interact with, care for, and learn from street cats result in humanizing insight into an unfamiliar culture for viewers.
At the Feriköy Organic Market, Deniz is “The Social Butterfly” who flutters around to the various stalls waiting for food or finding something to play with or just curl up and nap. In a voice-over, an insightful woman says, “They [cats] all have personalities, just like people. If you look closely, we’re the same. Some want affection, others will tell you all their troubles. Some are discreet, won’t talk about anything. Others are ambitious. And some are pompous…like a lady who can’t be bothered to say hello. Cats are exactly the same.” The cats are mirrors of humanity, reflecting back to us ourselves – for better or for worse.
Through the various city images and narratives, Istanbul is experiencing progress. There is a juxtaposition of old/tradition to representations of new. Some of the citizens comment on the loss of “green” being replaced by new roads, as well as commercial and real estate buildings. The film takes on a somber tone with regards to progress impacting the future of some of the neighborhoods visited in Kedi. Foremost though, citizens voice their worry for the cats and ask, what will happen to them? Secondly, they worry for themselves. Time and again, the voices and the images of people interacting with the cats through touch, through sharing food and water, convey a mindset of connectedness and a shared situation.
Torun could have easily painted a more devastating situation for the cats’ struggles on the streets (or dogs – a separate story). The longstanding relationship of cats and Istanbul provide a unique perspective of not only the city, but insight into the significance of cats through the voices of the city’s citizens, which no guidebook could provide. A woman eloquently summarizes that perspective can deliver understanding and lead to a more positive solution: “Our concerns for street animals and our concerns for people are completely related to one another. If you ask me, the troubles street cats or other street animals face are not independent from the troubles we all face. It would be easy to see street cats as a problem and handle them as a problem. Whereas, if we can learn to live together again, maybe we’ll solve our own problems as we try to solve theirs. In fact, I’m sure that we would even regain our fading sense of humor and rekindle our slowly dying joy for life.”
One could fault that some Istanbulites seem to anthropomorphize or objectify their human feelings onto the cats. As mentioned earlier, just like people, cats are unique individuals with their own way of doing things and interacting with their world. As one man reveals about the tough, short-haired, black-and-white female cat named Psikopat, “She never compromises her freedom.” That said, it cannot be disputed that the felines provide an anchor of stability, especially for some of their human caregivers who are in the midst of finding themselves. For the man who told the story of a cat leading him to a lost wallet, a woman finding her healing through feeding street cats in her neighborhood, or to the man who described himself “as a lost soul,” their connection with the street cats have been therapeutic and an enlightening experience. They found happiness and love through giving.
The cats mentioned above and a handful of others followed in Kedi are just a few of the hundreds of thousands of Turkish cats that have made their home in Istanbul for thousands of years. Like the city films of almost hundred years ago, cities are still in flux between tradition and progress. Kedi is both a cat documentary as much as a documentary of Istanbul, as well as conveying the message that there are lessons that can be learned through a cohesive existence between human and feline. At a base level, we can become better human beings, and we can have hope.
“A cat meowing at your feet, looking at you – is life smiling at you.
Those are moments when we’re lucky…they remind us that we’re alive.”