Kedi review: Ceyda Torun’s terrific documentary is a moving ode to the cats of Istanbul
Thousands of years ago, cats were once considered sacred, especially in Egyptian mythology. There was even a ‘Cat Goddess’ named Bast, who, according to historians, was considered as a deity who symbolised protection, fertility and motherhood. Men bowed to cats back then, a tradition which has continued to the 21st century when the felines are slowly but surely reclaiming their space on the internet. I’ve always wondered why the internet is filled with GIFs and videos of cats, more than any other animal or bird. Dogs might still be man’s best friends, but given an option between a cat and a dog, men are more likely to worship a cat. Or so it would it seem, depending on our obsession with understanding the lives of cats and why they always seem to stare into oblivion as if unravelling the mysteries of the universe.
Ceyda Torun’s terrific Turkish documentary Kedi, which follows the lives of seven different stray cats in the streets of Istanbul, is both a love letter to felines and also, a work which merits deep introspection about how humans have found a sense of purpose to their lives through acts of kindness.
The opening scene of Kedi offers a stunning bird’s eye view of Istanbul, where stray cats walk down the streets like they have for hundreds of years. Empires have risen and fallen in the city, and the cats have outlasted all of them. But how did so many cats end up in Istanbul? We are told that the port city attracted scores of ships from several countries. To keep away the rats on the ship, the sailors used to have a cat on board, and by the time the ship reached Istanbul, the cats would alight the ship and go up a mountain near the port. When the cats realised that it was time for them to return to the port, the ship would have left the shores already. And thus, thousands of cats, from all over Europe, sometimes as far away as Norway would end up in Istanbul and their number just kept growing over time.
Istanbul’s tryst with cats began to change rapidly with the advent of modernisation in the late 20th century, and with more buildings taking over urban spaces, the cats lost their natural habitat in the wilderness. And thus, the onus of taking care of hundreds of stray cats fell on people themselves, who struck a unique equation with the felines. Not only are the cats free to move anywhere they please — sometimes, even in restaurants or book stores — each cat has a personality of its own. Cyeda Torun focuses on the lives of seven such cats in Istanbul. One of them is a thief, which is extremely fond of fish; another is a romantic at heart; and there’s even a gentleman who’s surprisingly well-behaved when he demands to be fed at a restaurant.
At the core of Kedi is the heart-warming relationship between cats and strangers who take care of them. Through a series of interviews, Torun tells us about the various instances in which the cats have either saved the lives of these strangers or have given them a sense of purpose in life. A woman declares that she cooks 20 pounds of chicken every day to feed hundreds of cats in Istanbul, and this exercise has given her strength to deal with the notion of death. It’s a remarkable confession, one which strikes a chord with animal lovers who find warmth and joy in the presence of these furry creatures. A store owner says, “It’s said that cats know the existence of God. While dogs think people are God, cats don’t.” As a result, cats know that it’s not them who have to make an effort to earn love from humans, but the other way around.
The documentary is a visual treat, thanks to the outstanding work by its cinematographers — Alp Korfali and Charlie Wuppermann. It isn’t just the close-ups of the cats, but Korfali and Wuppermann go to extra-ordinary lengths to humanise the cats and capture their personality in glorious details. There’s even a shot of a cat trying to hunt rats in the sewers close to the sea in the middle of the night! It’s a million dollar question how all these cats ended up being so comfortable despite the cameras following them. Some of them just look through the camera as if questioning us: What are you staring at? At times, it’s also a case of making a statement where the cats look you in the eye and ask for an answer: Why did you abandon me? Do you still love me?
This brings me back to another mystery... Are cats indifferent to humans in a way that dogs can never be? If yes, then what explains the abundant love and admiration that they get from us? Perhaps, the answer lies in the closing scene of Kedi, where a man says, “A cat meowing at your feet, looking up at you, is life smiling at you. Those are moments when we’re lucky they remind us that we’re alive.” These two lines are enough to justify the idea that one day in the future, cats will rule the earth. And in the process of sharing their love for cats, we would never know if it’s the humans who saved cats or the way around.
Kedi is a beautiful piece of work about the unique relationship which cats and humans share in Istanbul. Like one person says, “Istanbul will lose a part of its soul if these cats didn’t roam around in the streets.” And after watching the documentary, (you'll feel) it couldn’t be more true.
You can watch Kedi on YouTube Red: