At first glance, “Kedi” sounds like a kind of ridiculous movie. A documentary about cats in Istanbul seems like pretty much the least accessible thing ever, one of those subjects that makes you roll your eyes at the entire concept of documentary in general. “One of those movies for people who like to be sad,” as the always wise Sidney Purcell from “Veep” would tell you. But honestly, if you choose to roll your eyes at this movie, you’re missing out on a genuinely delightful viewing experience. Also, it’s just a generally bad idea to take life advice from “Veep” characters, so you really have no excuse.
Directed by Turkish filmmaker Ceyda Torun (“Consuming Love”), “Kedi” takes a gentle, observational approach to the story of the city, as told through its cats. She weaves together features on seven separate cats who roam the streets of Istanbul, terrorizing fish vendors and rats alike, all while providing love and companionship across the city. We learn about each of these cats from interviews with the people who give them shelter, interviews that range from hilarious to adorable to downright heartbreaking. Torun captures the sort of gentle intimacy that’s unique to watching people interact with animals, all with complete respect for both the animals and the people. There’s no condescension here, no “Oh, look at these silly people who love cats so much” — only love and appreciation for a complicated and unique dynamic.
Torun intersperses gorgeous aerial shots of Istanbul in between the profiles of the cats. This, combined with the long tracking shots of the cats making their way through the city streets (the camera kept close to the ground, of course, so we can see the world the way the cats do) elevates the film from being a 90 minute version of a YouTube cat video. There’s a sense of real history and tradition here — a love letter to an ancient city. The cats have always been a part of Istanbul, as integral to the landscape as the cobbled streets, red roofs and boats docked by the water.
The loveliest element of the movie, though, is the people. Caring for the cats seems to be therapeutic for most of the subjects interviewed. One man interviewed is an artist who spends his days drawing alone in his apartment. His cat comes and goes, but usually likes to spend her days asleep on top of his sweaters in a half-open drawer. He says every once in a while he’ll get up to check on her. “Drawing is such isolating work,” he says, “but there’s a comfort to having a sleeping cat around.”
Another man tells of how he suffered a nervous breakdown years ago, how he tried every drug and therapy method and how the only thing that made him feel any better was going down to the docks and caring for the cats who lived there. Every day, he brings giant bags of food to the hungry cats, checks on the newly-birthed kittens and keeps track of the goings-on within the group. He notices, for example, when one of the approximately 50 cats is missing from her nightly dinner. Torun captures the heartbreaking earnestness of such moments with grace — letting her subjects speak for themselves, and simply showing us who they are.
So it’s not really a documentary about cats at all. It’s a story of a city, a people and the way humans create connections and meaning in the face of real struggle in their lives. There’s so much love here — love for the community, the animals, the people, the city, the history — that you want to live in Torun’s world forever. As a resident interviewed says: “A cat meowing at your feet staring up at you is life smiling at you.” I believe him.