By Greggory Moore
Once upon a time in Istanbul, the Ottoman Empire received many ships. The sailors from those far-off lands kept cats on board to keep the mice in check. Sometimes when the sailors set for home, the cats remained behind. Time passed, and Istanbul grew. With that growth came the sewers, which brought the rats. At that time, every home in the city kept a feline protector.
Kedi is a portrait of today’s Istanbul as the living legacy of this historical happenstance, a place where both cats and people have inherited a unique urban reality and share it co-extensively, each individual free to come and go as she pleases.
Rather than frame Kedi (also in theaters as Nine Lives: Cats in Istanbul, an unimaginative but admittedly more informative title, especially if you don’t speak Turkish) as the typical informational documentary, director Ceyda Torun eschews expositional devices (such as a narrator and onscreen text) and lets Istanbul’s residents talk of what they know: their own experience with their nonhuman cohort. Thus do we meet the main man in Gamsiz’s life, along with the woman who can’t resist letting Gamsiz (trans., “the player”) in every time she espies him standing sideways at her window and rakishly rapping on the pane with the back of his left paw. And the woman whose therapist tells her she must be trying to compensate for her own wounds by trying to care for so many wounded cats. And the man who had a nervous breakdown in 2002 and couldn’t smile or laugh, but now he’s come out the other side thanks to—you guessed it—cats.
The humans of Istanbul never get names, but Kedi is every bit as much about them—us—and the human habitations we create for ourselves (partly in how we accommodate the rest of nature) as it is about the cats who live among the Istanbulites. To many residents, a city wouldn’t be a city without cats. An owner of a posh restaurant speaks of his gratitude to Aslan Parçasi (“the hunter”), “this little lion of a cat” who showed up after the owner decided to stop leaving poison for the mice and let events play out “as nature dictates.” A waiter in another tells of Duman (“the gentleman”), who gets his food of choice (“He used to like roast beef, but now he only wants turkey,” which the waiter pairs with some fine sliced cheese) delivered out on the patio because he is too polite ever to enter the eatery, confining himself to pawing at the glass next to the wide-open door whenever he is hungry. The people of Istanbul—particularly in the Old City—take it upon themselves not only to leave the cats to their own devices (from what we’re shown it seems no Turk would dream of keeping cats as we do here, but Istanbul is home to almost 15 million people, so to say Kedi presents a small and selective sampling goes without saying), but often to go out of their way, sometimes way out of their way, to care for their semi-feral friends. (Gamsiz’s guy jokes that everyone in the neighborhood has open tabs with many vets. Except he’s not really joking.)
Those friends, though, get plenty of screen time. If you’re a LOLcat person, Kedi will scratch your stupid itch, though not as well as if you just stayed home and YouTubed, what with the subtitles and Torun’s having far better things to do than put together a highlight reel of cats doing stupid human tricks. But I cannot tell a lie: cats can be cute, and these little motherfuckers are no exception. Thing is, they’re far more interesting when looked at the way the Istanbulites see them: as individual lives among us—not lumped together simply as “cats,” and certainly not as creatures existing to entertain or be subservient to us. One resident imagines that interacting with a cat must be what it would be like to have an exchange with an alien life form (think UFOs). That’s exactly right. Over the centuries Istanbul has cultivated a habitat where a pair of divergent species have co-evolved a way of living, a rapprochement in which the individuality of all is respected by all.
But the modern world is encroaching on this idyll. As we see from a series of beautiful aerial shots (you’ll come away from Kedi with as much of a sense of Istanbul as you could get from a Rick Steves adventure (loves me some Rick Steves) with a soundtrack that often harks back to the meditative tracks in Lost in Translation), big-picture Istanbul is looking less and less like the Old City, with gleaming metallic skyscrapers sprouting like giant silver weeds. Clearly the traffic of the modern superhighway is not nearly as conducive to cat comings and going as the old stone streets, and feline ranges are reduced as nature is paved over. Life is not as sunny for cats living in the shadows of 60-storey office towers, whose inhabitants may be too busy with their thoroughly modern lives to afford cats as much right to self-determination as the rest of us enjoy. Too bad, because as one woman frames the issue, it’s easy to imagine that a society structured so as to be conducive to urban feline life is likely to have gone a long way toward being a healthy place for human habitation.
A line from Kedi‘s opening sequence: “Without the cat, Istanbul would lose part of its soul.” No-one can come away from this film without agreeing. I’ve never seen anything like Istanbul, and I kind of want to live there now. Because living as I do in Long Beach, California—like Istanbul a port city, but one with no feral cat community to speak of and none of the commingling (here they are a caste not far above vermin)—I’ve come away feeling that a part of our civic soul is missing, a never-developed potentiality that leaves us a little less human than we might be. Because in the 21st-century metropolis most of us live in a world where nonhuman nature is not encountered on its own terms but is eradicated or domesticated so as to most conveniently fit our prefabricated form of city life. What if cats were everywhere among us, using our E-Z Ups for hammocks and perched on our eaves like living gargoyles, choosing if and when to climb down from their perches and engage us for a scratch or a nap on our lap, staying the night or just passing through or seeking us out as a regular fixture for the rest of their lives? Perhaps the Istanbulite is right who says that interacting only with people is not enough for us, especially as adults. Perhaps, as another says, cats really can help teach us how to live, if only we maintain a non-confining space that allows them to indulge in their freedom and chart their own courses among us. If only.