In times of distress, it’s only natural to turn to cute animals as a distraction. If an image of a basketful of baby golden retrievers can bring you a brief moment of joy, by all means, scroll towards sanity. Twitter accounts like @EmergencyPuppy have gone viral for providing precisely this service, and now comes Kedi, a new documentary from first-time feature director Ceyda Torun, which follows a group of Istanbul street cats. It’s arrived just in time.
Torun jokingly calls Kedi “uplifting terrorism” when we meet to chat about her charming feline flick. But the film is more than just a cute cat video blown up to feature length; it’s a slice-of-life portrait of Istanbul, which is crawling with the creatures that have become the heartbeat of the city’s daily rhythm. She profiles seven camera-ready cats, all of whom have distinct personalities and nicknames: the Hustler, the Lover, the Psycho, the Social Butterfly, the Hunter, the Gentleman, and the Player. A good director knows the importance of a good cast, and Torun’s got one hell of an ensemble.
Torun gets her camera low to the ground to stay eye level with her feline stars, but she also makes sure to give some screen time to the human citizens who take care of these strays, people who speak of their fish-loving visitors as good friends and equals. Cats have always been highly regarded in Istanbul, and folklore says a cat once saved the Prophet Muhammad from a poisonous snake. There’s even a popular saying in Turkey that goes: “If you’ve killed a cat, you need to build a mosque to be forgiven by God.” (Don’t worry: No cats die in this film.)
There’s something very feel-good about Kedi, but Torun admits the film’s lack of conflict was hardly intentional. “Initially the idea was to get every side of the story,” she says. “There are, of course, people who are openly anti-cats, but they also happen to be people who are anti-people. We had a really hard time trying to get people to talk to us if they didn’t like cats.” It’s a point the movie drives home: Loving cats may make you a lovelier person.
For a film that feels like a response to troubled times, there’s very little politics in the film — no mention of terror attacks or Erdogan. “[The relationship between humans and cats] is a very timeless relationship and it would be an injustice to the cats and to the people who love them to suggest otherwise,” Torun says. “It’s bigger than the politics; it’s bigger than small-minded politicians in our lives that come and go.” The film was shot the summer following the Gezi Park protests — a series of rallies against the closing of a public park that evolved into massive demonstrations against government crackdowns on free speech and secularism — and yet they’re only mentioned by one of the interview subjects, briefly. “I didn’t want to include anything pessimistic; it’s not an activist film,” Torun says. “But it was a way to highlight our shared humanity, and an appreciation of an aspect of life that goes beyond language, beyond religion, beyond anything.”
Kedi is at its best when it show a connection that runs deeper than passing petting. In one section, a woman says that cats — who move in a playful, feminine manner — are like surrogates for female expression under traditional Turkish norms. “Although Turkey is still one of the most advanced in terms of women’s rights, culturally, it’s still a little bit backwards,” Torun says. “If you do express your femininity, then you’re seen as a ‘loose’ woman. If you don’t express your femininity, then you’re seen as frigid. Whereas with cats, no one judges them. No one says, ‘Oh, what a slut’ to a cat.”
“You also see so many men in the film who tend to these cats, and have this opportunity to be affectionate with a feminine being without it being misinterpreted,” she explains. “Male-female relationships in Turkey are stunted, and they can express these kinds of emotions in a healthy way — you know, with other creatures like cats.”
There’s also a sense of camaraderie and community that’s built from each neighborhood taking care of its cats together. In one scene, people chip in to pay a street cat’s vet fees, an act of instinctive generosity that’s hard not to imagine seeping into interpersonal connections. It’s a healthy reminder of the things that are worth holding onto. And yes, the cats are cute, too.