KEDI: The Film We All Need
Kedi is a joyful documentary that features the cats in Istanbul, Turkey, and the special connection they have with the city's humans.
Sometimes when everything seems to be going wrong, salvation can come from simple and unexpected places. With the daily avalanche of portends of the seemingly inevitable apocalypse, I, like many, have been glued to my phone, not wanting to miss the latest affront or how it might be fought against. I’ve been going to my local city hall meeting and engaging my elected officials in a manner I’m embarrassed to admit I never did before. I’ve been watching every documentary that lays out the pressing issues of the day. But something I totally forgot about, and hadn’t even realized was missing until I saw Kedi, was joy.
It was almost an epiphany, something like: “oh yea, this feeling! I remember this, where’ve you been?” The answer it seems was traveling around the world, from film festival to film festival, navigating the improbable path culminating in a deal for US theatrical distribution. From first-time feature filmmaker Ceyda Torun, Kedi is simple in its approach of documenting the feral cats of Istanbul and the people who live along side them, but its emotional effect is revelatory.
As we are taken from feline to feline, exposed to us by the narration of a human in their lives, a feeling of well-being begins to percolate and grow. Some of them are more reluctant, the cats having chosen them rather than the other way around, while others are all in from the get go, but all seem to love these strays and cherish their relationships with them. No matter how it began, the marriage between cats and Istanbul seems permanent, and it’s one which we could all benefit from exploring.
The film opens with soaring drone shots over Istanbul, something that has almost become a prerequisite for documentaries as of late. But here it is purposeful, introducing the city has both setting and character and representing the intended scope of this seemingly small project. We are then introduced to a small orange and white fellow as she begs for scraps (with great success) from street diners, with a jaunty Turkish soundtrack behind her. Her actions aren’t extraordinary; she trots, she chews, she laps up water, but even so it is an absolute delight to watch. Kedi is a film that is able to draw great power from such simplicity, packing remarkable potency of feeling behind what some might consider a benign subject.
From there, we’re off to the races, meetings cats of all different ages, sizes, colors and dispositions. Cinematographer Charlie Wupperman employs a variety of techniques to capture the often unpredictable behavior of his subjects that is more guerrilla than nature film. The result: encounters that feel as honest and intimate as the interviewees feel about their cats (it definitely helps that you can stick a camera right in a cat’s face and she wont pay any mind).
The unique relationship the cats have with this global city is unofficial and people-powered, so it’s only fitting that a film chronicling it should feel similarly grimy. Don’t get me wrong, cats are cute and the film look beautiful, which many gorgeous shots of its eponymous stars, but they’re also out there getting dirty and killing mice, and the film’s aesthetic reflects this more holistic view of feral cats’ existence.
Though the particularities of each cat-human relationship vary, the universalities are impossible to ignore. All the humans say the cats are like people, with their own personalities and emotions. They all have intricate imagined relationships with their feline friends, often projecting onto them their own emotions and opinions, while also recognizing in them qualities they wish they or others possessed. All feel that the cats give them as much, if not more, in return for intermittent food and shelter. And all recognize in cats a sort of mystic, otherworldly quality that they are proud to have associated with their city.
The furry friends are everywhere: restaurants, shops, the harbor, you get a sense that if they had the slightest inclination that they could take over the city; but maybe they already have. The citizens of Istanbul seem to take it as a civic duty to protect and maintain the cat population, it is almost as if they’re under a collective spell. The general sentiment seems to be “if you didn’t want cats in your market, why would you open a market in Istanbul?” Many of the interviewees comment that the cats absorb their negative energy. It seems in trade, the cats have claimed the city as their own.
And Istanbul and its citizenry has benevolently allowed it to happen, accepting them as a cultural symbol as well as a daily affirmation of life and love. Watching Kedi one wonders what might be achieved were more cities to adopt a similar approach to feral communities. I forgot how much of a delight it is watching cats interact with each other, people, their families and pretty much anything they encounter. Even watching them merely navigate their urban environment can be alternatively contemplative or exciting, depending on if they are stopping to groom or engaging in some pussy parkour to make their way home.
I feel I might be a tad overly enthusiastic about this film right now, as it is not without its faults. The subjects are many and some of the interviews can feel repetitive as similar insights are offered by different people. I might have preferred their expulsion entirely, going for a non-narrative KoyaanisCATsi approach. But the magic with which the public imbues their omnipresent companions is palpable, and that magic inevitably finds its way into Kedi.
Though there are plenty of insights to be gleaned, this is a film that values an experiential approach over a cerebral one; a tact particularly rare for documentaries. In taking such a course, I was left with a feeling that nothing had given me in months, let alone a movie. I know not everyone is a cat person, but I think most will be Kedi people.
Man, I gotta get some cats.
What other documentaries left you feeling elated?
Kedi comes out in NYC Friday, February 10th, before expanding to other cities following Fridays. You can get the details for your area at their website.
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