“If you want to be a psychological novelist and write about human beings, the best thing you can do is keep a pair of cats.” – Aldous Huxley
Early on in the film, “Kedi,” we meet a Bosphorus fisherman who traces his love of cats to an act of divine intervention.
He tells us he lost his boat in a storm some years ago. As he was walking along the waterfront, wondering what he would do next, he came across a wallet lying on the pavement. Nearby, a cat seemed to be pointing at the wallet.
Dubiously, distressingly, the fisherman picked up the wallet, and wouldn’t you know it? It just happened to contain 120 Turkish lira, precisely the amount of money he says he needed at the time.
“I swear to God this story is true,” he says. “Anybody who doesn’t believe me is a heathen!”
“Kedi,” directed by Ceyda Torun and which opened recently in local cinemas, is full of such stories. The film is presented (in Turkish, with English subtitles) as a series of rich, street-level vignettes featuring a wide range of Istanbullus, two- and four-legged alike. If it’s true that behind every cat’s reflective eyes there’s a story, then equally true – and even more compelling – the same goes for their humans. And this is what makes “Kedi” worth viewing – I mean, I like cats (my wife and I adopted a street cat in our neighborhood of Koşuyolu), but had the film been 120 minutes of kittens playing with string – the kind of excruciatingly cute videos you are subjected to on Facebook every day – I’d have quickly lost interest. Its title notwithstanding, “Kedi” is about people as much as it is about cats.
Anybody who has spent any length of time in Istanbul cannot escape its feline nature. Walking along in Kadıköy upon my arrival seven years ago, the street cats were among my strongest first impressions, not to mention the people in the neighborhoods who looked after them, putting out food, allowing the cats to hang around, wander in and out as they pleased, and even taking sick ones to the vet. Together, the cats and the people of Istanbul form a symbiotic relationship. It is this simple fact of life that Torun, a born-and-raised Instanbullu herself, understands and communicates throughout the film.
For example, we meet an artist, a young man who says that drawing is an isolated activity; the street cats that freely walk in and out of his Cihangir studio provide a measure of comfort; a middle-aged man who confesses to having experienced a nervous breakdown in 2002, and who has found a kind of cathartic renewal by feeding the cats in his neighborhood. Others, from all over the great city, tell similarly personal stories. We learn about the personalities, the characters of the creatures. For example, there is Gamsız, which means “carefree” in Turkish, and we’re told this black and white cat is outwardly an aristocrat, but inwardly still a bit of a street thug, and that true to his name, seems to go through life generally unperturbed by life and its often troubling circumstances.
This is a quality that endears cats to many of us: their sense of being somehow above it all.
“Cats are aware of God,” one man in the film says. “Dogs are not. This is the difference between cats and dogs. Dogs think that people are God. With cats – it’s not that they’re ungrateful. They just know better is all.”
The relationship between the vast city of Istanbul and its many, many cohabitants – human, feline, and otherwise – is the strongest aspect of the film. For those of us who live and work here, who suffer the noise, the traffic, the long hours commuting, not to mention fears of war and terror, the street cats offer solace, respite, a sense of kinship, connection, even hope.
“They could even rekindle our fading sense of humor, rekindle our fading joy of life,” says a woman who looks after a greyish cat aptly named Duman (“Smoky”). We notice that Duman has exquisite manners, consideration. When he hangs outside the local restaurant, he never allows himself to intrude on the patrons. Instead, when hungry, or drawn by the sight or aroma of something he fancies, Duman simply goes to the window and paws the glass, signaling that he wishes to be served.
Such stories resonate, and are told simply, without getting mawkish or pretentious. Cats, after all, in all shapes, colors and sizes, are born artists, and don’t respond to coaching or prodding anyway. And Istanbullus tend to be talkative – natural storytellers – so Torun wisely lets the citizens tell their stories themselves, and paints a fairly broad canvas of the city (although Kadıköy seemed to be a notable oversight). Not infrequently, the stories are revealing, touching on issues such as faith, character, life and death.
“Cats have qualities that I think people should have,” says our fisherman, the one who attests to the divinity that encircles the city’s feline population. By the end of the film, you also are a believer, if you weren’t already.
If there is anything missing from the film, the omission is obvious: the city’s dogs, which actually have an equally long and storied history with Istanbul. But I suspect that Torun, being a cat lover, will have to leave such a prospective project in the hands of another director.
James Tressler, author of several books on Istanbul, is a writer. He lives with his wife Özge and Ginger, a retired street cat, in Kosuyolu.