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February 24, 2017

Oh, to be a cat in Istanbul. Hip kitten lovers in America are just lately coming on board with the Japanese idea of “cat cafes,” where you can watch furry felines frolic as you sip your soy latte. But cats have run freely throughout the Turkish metropolis for hundreds, maybe thousands of years. They show up in a number of local stories about the Prophet, leading to a certain reverence from the largely Muslim population. It may not quite be the same treatment as cows get in Hindu countries, but the feral cats have integrated into the life of the city in a truly remarkable way.

And, well, that’s about all the facts you can really say about the story without getting drily academic or stretching to make it fit a larger scope. In her documentary, Kedi, director Ceyda Torun avoids drawing heavy-handed conclusions. Despite its urban setting, this is at heart a nature documentary, studying a population of animals living as they do few other places on Earth.

Obviously in the United States and Europe, we don’t tend to let cats have the run of the place, except within our own houses. Street cats are rounded up and sent off to shelters, likely to be put down. In less-developed parts of the world, cats are left alone, but also left to fend for themselves, as any other urban wildlife might. But in Istanbul, the cats occupy a strange middle ground, making homes and alliances with the human residents, but never quite becoming pets, as such.

Torun chooses seven cats to profile, following them to what extent she can, and talking with the people who are acquainted with each one. Some, like Sarı or Bengü, are mothers and providers. Others, like Aslan Parçası, are fierce ratters who earn their keep by keeping pests away from the neighborhood fish restaurant. There’s even Psikopat, whose name barely needs translation to hint at her demeanor.

Cats, one of the people muses, are aware of the existence of God. While dogs view people as divine providers, even pet cats seem to realize people’s place in the world, and are not content with mere obedience. The implications for the age-old schism between “cat people” and “dog people” are left to the audience. For the most part, little mention is made of those of the other persuasion.

Instead, most of the film is spent in the calmness that comes while petting a cat. To interact with a creature so familiar, and yet so alien, lends itself to contemplation. The tendency to anthropomorphize and project our own human stories onto the cats is overwhelming, and what we see in them is as likely a reflection of ourselves. The people Torun interviews talk about the cats, but they tell us about the city itself. It’s a charmingly oblique way to get at the soul of this culture, itself straddling two worlds.

Of course, it’s easily possible to ignore all of this search for depth, and just treat it as a movie about a bunch of cute kitties, which is likely how most people will receive it. Go in fairly warned that your fellow audience members are likely to burst out into spontaneous coos and other affectionate noises. And go on and let some out yourself. For this movie, at least, don’t take it — or yourself — quite so seriously. The cats certainly don’t.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: if it applies to documentaries, pass.

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