Movie review: Feel-good doc 'Kedi' reveals Istanbul through the eyes of cats

The cats are the stars, the humans their supporting cast.

The cats are the stars, the humans their supporting cast. Courtesy of Oscilloscope

Cats have been in Istanbul since before the ancient city was called that, most of them without a home.

Today they number in the tens of thousands, a constant presence that, to hear one interviewee in Kedi tell it, “embodies the indescribable chaos, the culture, and the uniqueness that is the essence of Istanbul.” Ceyda Torun follows a cross-section of these felines in her quietly moving documentary, an ideal cinematic treat for viewers who normally roll their eyes at feel-good fare.

Most of the cats aren’t entirely stray — they’re so ubiquitous that they’ve been accepted as part of the city’s fabric, and so a loose assortment of shopkeepers, passersby, and tourists can’t help but feed them scraps and give them attention. Together they make up Kedi’s ensemble cast. It’s the humans who play second fiddle.

Torun has done a marvelous job of not only following her subjects around with fluid, handheld camerawork but of bringing their distinct personalities to the fore; these cats are characters in the truest sense of the word. The first we meet, an orange-and-white mother of four named Sari, is good at hunting and even better at charming humans.

Another is Aslan, the unofficial exterminator at a seaside restaurant with a mouse problem; the “little lion” is welcomed by the proprietors, who more than approve of his nighttime hunting trips. (“He earns his keep,” says an employee.) Perhaps the cleverest of the bunch is the rotund kitty who hangs around a delicatessen and has made a personal chef of one cook — Duman used to like roast beef, we’re informed, but now he prefers turkey and soft cheeses.

Like all others interviewed by Torun, the man has a gentle, even philosophical view of his city’s feline denizens. It’s a major source of joy, throughout Kedi, to hear people ruminate on the animals’ impact on their lives and on the city; one woman even draws a connection between her feline neighbors and the difficulty of being a woman in Istanbul. It’s often the case that art about animals is especially humane, and so it is here.

There’s surely a darker side to all this, one involving motherless kittens and the nameless strays who aren’t as well cared for, but Torun mostly opts for the lighthearted. This at times feels like something of an oversight, albeit a difficult one to hold against the filmmaker.

In addition to the obvious appeal of watching cats slink their way through a city for 90 minutes, Kedi also boasts whimsical musings from its human cast. “It is said that cats are aware of God’s existence, but that dogs are not,” says one. “Dogs think people are God, but cats don’t. Cats know that people act as middlemen to God’s will. They’re not ungrateful — they just know better.”

I won’t presume to know how you might react to such homespun wisdom about our feline friends, dear reader, but for me it was like catnip.

Director: Ceyda Torun
Theater: Opens Friday, Uptown Theatre