Kedi is a feature-length YouTube cat video from Turkey. Or is it a documentary? We’ll get to that later. In any case, it’s a movie that chronicles the lives of seven Istanbul street cats and the humans who tend to them. Directed by Ceyda Torun, it made the rounds at international film festivals from February 2016, and as of March 2017 it has had a limited showing in arthouse- and indie-type movie theaters in the USA.
Right, so, Kedi. Isn’t that just the most heartwarming thing you’ve ever seen? It makes Friday Night Lights look cold and cynical. I first saw it in December 2016 when there was a Jezebel article about it. I watched it and of course I was like “Yeah, of course I’m gonna see that, when does it come out?” And then I was like “Damn, that’s like two months away, and I wanna see the cats right now.” So I waited with baited breath (I was bringing the bait to feed the cats with — you know, shrimp and minnows and that kind of thing) until I heard that an indie-arthouse-type movie theater near me was playing it. And then I was like “Okay yeah, I’m gonna go see it now.”
Now, what can you say about a movie like Kedi? How should it be evaluated? I think the big ques— hang on a sec, my cats are attacking the blinds cord, and I’m worried they’re gonna yank the whole thing right out of the wall. I’ll be right back.
Okay, I’m back. While I was up, I discovered that one of cats had spat up in the bathroom. I say “spat up” rather than “threw up” because what she always does is eat little pieces of plastic or whatever and then throw up basically just the plastic with only a little bit of stomach fluid. I’m not thrilled that she eats plastic off the floor (or that there are bits of plastic all over), but it’s good that she throws it up, right? Like, that’s the healthy thing to do if plastic should get eaten?
Anyway, where were we? Oh yeah, right, evaluating a movie like Kedi. The big question to me is: is this just a feature-length cat video, or is it a serious documentary? More pointedly: does this movie have broad appeal, or is it just for cat people and Istanbul people? Now of course, I’m both, so you already know that I loved it. If you’re into both cats and Istanbul, then I can tell you: you’re gonna love this movie. I guarantee it.
In more detail, I think there are three dimensions by which Kedi can be measured: its cat stuff, its Istanbul stuff, and its commentary.
The cat stuff is phenomenal. You see lots of cat activities — crossing busy streets, fighting, walking around on window ledges way off the ground, that kind of thing. A lot of the movie was shot from the cat’s perspective. The people are shot only up to their knees or waists, like the adults in Peanuts. I think they did this by attaching a camera to an RC car. Let me see if I can find where I read that. Oh, here it is:
Was working with them difficult, just in terms of capturing the cats on film?
It was remarkably easier than I thought. They are very used to people. Once we figured out which cameras and what method was the easiest for them to handle—because we had remote controlled cars we took a part and made into camera rigs so we could follow them around but they didn’t really like that too much—the majority of shots came from the two 5D [cameras] that we had. It would have been impossible to capture this continuous footage without multiple cameras.
Okay, so the RC car thing actually didn’t work. But anyway, the cat stuff is great. There’s this one cat that lives outside a fancy restaurant. The workers there were like “Oh look how proud and dignified he is. He never hunts or comes inside the restaurant. When he wants to eat, all he does is paw at the window.” And then you see the cat stand up and start pawing at the window. Really, great stuff.
Okay, so what if you don’t care about cat stuff? You say “Yeah but I don’t like cat stuff. I like Istanbul stuff. How’s the Istanbul stuff?” I’m not sure I can answer this objectively. Much of this movie was shot in Cihangir, the Istanbul neighborhood where I lived. I remember when I first saw Cihangir. We were looking for an apartment, and the real estate agent (we always called him the emlak) showed us a place there, right in the heart of the city’s antique district. The streets were narrow and winding, and every block had like three of those little shops that sell fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice. It felt vibrant and alive and even a little historical, but it also didn’t seem too touristy. Plus the apartment was around the corner from a restaurant called Pizza Vegas. So then it was like “Yeah, okay, we’ll take it then.”
Well, that was a digression, but I guess it illustrates the point I was going to make: I was entranced watching these beautiful shots of Cihangir, but I don’t know if many people would have that same reaction. Is Cihangir actually not touristy, or was that just me? I imagine a lot of tourists spend all of their time in the old Sirkeci / Sultanahmet area, and never see Cihangir, or even Taksim. Anyway, what I’m saying is that you won’t see old Byzantine Istanbul, you’ll see slowly-modernizing 19th century European Istanbul, and I suppose that’s not for everyone.
Okay, fine, what if you don’t care about cats or Istanbul? Does Kedi have something to offer beyond its immediate subject matter? Here’s what the director says:
That you had to rely on what they revealed to you is so… cats. This may be very American of me, but when I was watching this I couldn’t help but wonder where the tragedy was. These cats are on the street and your movie is nice and gentle. It seems like you could have made a movie just as long about cats dying left and right. Did you get a sense of the peril they face, or does the communal cat raising of Istanbul create a cat utopia?
You’re right to bring that up. It was a very difficult decision to make. Even though I’d say if you look at the proportions, they have a much better life than not, though in Istanbul, it’s not exactly a utopia. It’s not completely free of disease. That’s why I made sure to include a mini segment about death and the bad things that could happen to them—the kitten getting attacked by an older male, the lady who feeds the cats talking about cancer—but I wanted to without shoving it in people’s faces, make the suggestion that whatever misery they may have in their lives is no different than the misery we have as human beings. In the same way that I don’t pity a person who may choose to live differently in their life, I don’t believe it’s sad because these cats don’t have homes. I believe they’re meant to be living this kind of life. I think that as sad as it is that cats can’t be safe on the streets, it’s sad that kids can’t be safe on the streets playing.
I pursued it during the filming, I interviewed people about what has changed in Istanbul for them, what they think is good and bad, but in the end it would have changed the overall emotion of the film, and it wouldn’t have been sufficient to just briefly mention it. Same with the political troubles Istanbul is going through, both during the time of filming and now, it was a very conscious decision not to include those things, mostly because cats in Istanbul is a timeless thing and I wanted people to feel that. And it was an act of defiance to say, “I’m not going to give these horrible politicians and the things they do any mention and any immortality by featuring them in this film. They don’t deserve it, they don’t belong in it, and everyone’s already aware.”
That was a long quote, but the point is that if there’s commentary in the movie, it’s pretty subtle. If you’re hoping for an explicit message about how inside, we’re really all animals or something like that, you won’t get one. If you’ve ever used the initialism NHA in reference to a cat, you’ll probably find something deep in this movie, but I don’t think most people will. I didn’t.
Actually, it’s not completely true that there are no mentions of the political situation. There’s one subtle shot of a cat in front ERDO-GONE graffiti. One interviewee makes a passing negative remark about city redevelopment, but it isn’t explored. There are a few comments about religion, but not much beyond what are basically folk beliefs.
Hang on, I’m gonna go make some lunch. I’ll be right back.
Speaking of lunch, the movie frequently shows cats getting fed. Shots of people giving cats buckets of fish. One interviewee says that every day she feeds her flock of street cats twenty pounds of chicken. That’s a lot of chicken, and I would expect a movie like Kedi to address the issue. Cats are sweet and cuddly, but they’re also vicious obligate carnivores, and a lot of animals are killed to subsidize their existence. There have to be at least 999 other old ladies in the city with the same cat-feeding routine, all 1000 of them feeding 20 lbs of chicken per day to the cats. That’s ten tons of chicken. Who’s standing up for those chickens? Where’s their movie? To say nothing of all the fish. That’s something the movie might have addressed, but didn’t.
Hang on, my chicken is ready. I’m gonna go take it out of the oven now.
Okay I’m back. What was I saying? Is there anything left to say? Did the movie say anything else? A lot of the people interviewed tell some pretty far out anecdotes about the cats in their lives. Many of them have something to say individually, but I wouldn’t say the movie itself really does anything weave any of it together.
MM: Lastly, How did you choose your human subjects in the film?
When we went to Istanbul a year earlier to research the general idea of the film, we met a lot of people by walking the streets and striking up conversations with those who seemed to be involved in cats’ lives. We also reached out to people who were known to be interested in cats—artists, novelists, professors, philosophers, psychologists, scientists—to get their perspective and insight. We also tried to interview people who did not like cats! But we found that their dislike of cats simply spoke to their individual preferences rather than a broader understanding of the human-cat relationship.
So do I recommend it? If you think you might it enjoy it, you probably will, and if you think won’t enjoy it, you probably won’t. If you’re on the fence, you probably won’t enjoy it either, since it’s pretty much all out there in the trailer. But as I said before, I loved Kedi.