Increasingly, I feel like the empty spaces in my life are filled with cats—and I don't even have one. Whether they're fitting themselves into unlikely containers or inexplicably leaping into the air, cats have proven excellent mascots for the internet, equal parts beguiling and cute and serving as stress relief even if there's not one purring on your lap. But Ceyda Torun's new documentary, Kedi, about Istanbul's huge and adorable population of street cats, argues that they're much more than fluffy companions: They're entities with characters and personalities, intermediaries between us and God.
From ancient Egyptian sculptures, to T. S. Eliot's Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, to Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical, felines have inspired works of art for thousands of years—and Torun's film is a delightful addition to the chronicle of cats' alluring nature. Like many Muslim-majority nations, Turkey has a particularly robust cat population; in Islam, cats are ritually clean animals, and one account in the hadith tells the story of the Prophet Muhammad cutting off his sleeve so as not to disturb the cat sleeping on his robe. Today, residents and businesses leave out food and water for these recurring visitors in their lives, allowing the cats to come and go as they please. In a particularly funny scene from Kedi, a baker describes how everyone in the neighborhood has a "running tab" at the vet for their scrappy friend Gamsiz (the "Player"). In another, employees at a restaurant laugh as they describe how Duman (the "Gentleman") will show up outside the establishment and paw on the window for food, even when the door is wide open.
"The Istanbul cat movie," as I've taken to calling it, is certainly compelling at face value—many of the documentary's New York showings last weekend were sold out. But while the film is sure to induce coos, Kedi isn't just pure escapism. There are subtle inferences regarding the cats' world around them—whether political (deliberate shots of "Erdo-GONE" graffiti) or emotional (a cat caretaker's admission that their feline friend helped deal with a nervous breakdown)—that quietly paint a rich portrait of a rapidly changing culture. By the end, you might find yourself in love with Istanbul's cats, while also worrying about threats to their livelihood. I spoke with Torun over the phone as she prepared for the film's LA debut this weekend.
VICE: Why did you want to make this film?
Ceyda Torun: I grew up with cats in Istanbul, so for me there's a love there already. But non-Turks also noticed there was something special about the relationship between cats and people in Istanbul. We also wanted to explore a city and a culture through the eyes of a non-human—to portray the city in a way that news reports and tour guides really can't.
What were some of the logistical challenges in creating that cat's-eye-view perspective? Did you just have cameras rolling in certain locations all the time?
We didn't have cameras set up in [specific] places because it would've been too difficult—the city is too big, there are too many people, and the cats are too mobile within their territories. The biggest challenge was that they move on a vertical axis as well as a horizontal one. They explore the city in a three-dimensional way that would've been very difficult for us to prep for with cameras.
The best way for us to get the footage was to have a small, mobile crew based out of a van that just ran around the city. We got the people to be our informants—to call us and say, "Psycho's back, you gotta come back!" Cats are so attached to their human counterparts that tracking the humans helped us track the cats.
Do you think kittens were overrepresented? They are precious and I love them, but I wondered if you would really see that many.
We didn't go out of our way to add more kittens, but we didn't go out of our way to eliminate kittens. In parts of the city where people are more directly involved in the lives of the cats, the trap-neuter-return operation functions better, so you have a lot of middle-aged and older cats in those neighborhoods. A lot of the kittens in the film are where the fish hole had been—where big ships would come in with their catches from the night before. That's a place where people don't live, and those are areas where you see more uncontrolled populations of cats, and therefore a lot more kittens.
We filmed during April and May, though, so it was prime kitten delivery time. We had a lot of heavily pregnant cats try to take over wherever we were to try and set up a place where they could give birth. They're so human dependent; a pregnant cat might show up on your balcony one morning and find her way into your house so she can give birth to her kittens. And you can't really kick them out.
"Cats are so attached to their human counterparts that tracking the humans helped us track the cats."
*There's some discussion toward the end of the film about how the city is changing, and you suggest the cat population could be under threat. Can you explain that threat a little more? *
I wouldn't call it "gentrification," because it's not the case of a community or neighborhood naturally evolving into a more livable space. This is more a case of real estate becoming more and more valuable because the population of humans is growing exponentially. When I was a child in Istanbul, we were about 4 million people—now it's about 20 million. The threat to cats and their habitat is our [city's] placing priority on our immediate needs, our having to accommodate housing for people instead of thinking in a more strategic way. The city grew really rapidly in the 80s, but it was not really managed in the most organized way. The cats run out of spaces to live, which is us running out of spaces to exist outside of an apartment unit.
Occasionally the government will say, "Let's round them all up and put them in shelters because [having a huge stray cat population] is not what the EU would like," so they declare that they're going to come take all the cats and dogs. Then tens of thousands of people protest. It's sort of an every-five-years type of thing. So there is always a threat that the cats may disappear, or may not exist in the way they are right now, and that was one of the reasons I was so motivated to document them.
I've seen a couple of reviews that say the movie isn't political. Do you agree with that?
I think that people can see what they want to see, which is fine—it's not meant to be an activist film. The cats in Istanbul, and the relationship they have with people, are bigger than any government or any political issue. [But politics] was always influencing my choices. I think there's a way to talk about politics or political environments without pushing an agenda or making it the forefront of a film. This movie needed to be more of an experience, much like a sort of thought process. I was motivated to create a film that felt the same way a street cat in Istanbul makes you feel when they come in and sit on your lap for an hour and you can't move. It's so nice. They're warm, they purr on you, they let you pet them without making you feel nervous about anything. Suddenly, you're not checking your phone, you stop having the conversation that you're having with your friend. You become focused on that experience, all while being sort of guided by this animal that is just sitting and purring on your lap.
Do you have any cats?
No, I don't have a cat that I say is my own because we travel too much to be fair to an animal. We just take care of other people's cats and dogs.
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Kedi is now playing in New York and Los Angeles, with a larger rollout to follow.