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Kedi: A gentle meditation on the bond between humans and cats in Istanbul

Kedi’s charm lies in that it pulls back from anthropomorphizing its feline leads too much; their personalities are merely observed, and any human attempt to quantify a preferred cat’s charms falls sweetly short.

3.5 out of 4 stars

Written by
Bulent Ustun
Directed by
Ceyda Torun
Bulent Ustun

Read almost any piece of travel journalism about Istanbul, and there will be mention of the cats. The city is literally crawling with them: unquantifiable felines, prowling the streets at all hours, climbing through windows uninvited and stealing fish from street vendors. But unlike other major cities that might consider the enormous feline presence a plague or pestilence, in Istanbul, the cats are an integral part of daily life. "Being a cat in Istanbul," a Turkish musician told The Wall Street Journal in 2015," is like being a cow in India."

Kedi, the Oscilloscope Laboratories-produced documentary getting a limited release this week, is a gentle meditation on the strange symbiosis that exists between humans and cats throughout the Turkish city. Over the course of 80 minutes, the film – through a combination of interviews with locals, quiet shots of city life and scenes of cats in action (climbing to the top of local churches, say, or protecting a brood of kittens) – comes close to painting a complete picture of a city in which animals known for their autonomy and independent spirit have basically persuaded an entire population of people to take care of them, to gradual mutual benefit. Cats, despite what any dog people reading may suggest, do make great friends, especially if you give them a whole city's worth of space.

There are seven cats who get almost exactly 15 minutes of fame in Kedi, and each has a name, but if you blink, you'll miss it. They're not always front and centre – whenever the film pulls out for a great panorama of Istanbul, or focuses specifically on its human inhabitants' daily activities, it becomes increasingly tempting to seek out the cat in the frame (and when there's not one immediately visible, to wonder how many must be hidden from view). It's part of Kedi's charm that it pulls back from anthropomorphizing its feline leads too much; their individual personalities are observed, rather than prescribed, and any attempt on the part of humans to quantify and articulate their preferred cat's charms falls sweetly short.

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Sweet, too, are Kedi's various human subjects as they theorize on the more philosophical significance of cats, perhaps as an attempt to explain why they all devote portions of their respective lives to caring for these semi-wild mini-beasts. Two women mention communicating with cats; one notes the development of a "shared language." A written sign warns passers-by that, if they "do not want to be hungry or thirsty in the next life," don't remove a set of cups that have been put out to hold food and water for cats and dogs.

Most memorable, though, is the suggestion that, while dogs think humans are God, cats know that we're just middlemen. It's not that they're ungrateful, the deliverer of this feline philosophy says, "they just know better."

Whether it is spiritual obligation or the appreciation of companionship, it's never made quite clear why, exactly, the people of Istanbul feel a responsibility toward the feline portion of the city's population. The reason for the city's proliferation of cats comes late in the film, and it's delivered as quickly as the rest of the doc's information: long story short, the cats arrived on ships, figured their journey was over and never returned to port.

It is tempting to suggest that Kedi, with its meandering, long shots of cats doing cat things interspersed with human professions of love for cats, is simply a cat lover's dream doc. But it's a beautiful film, too, and a fascinating portrait of a remarkable network of human-animal cohabitation that is perhaps easier to understand than Kedi's 80 minutes would suggest: As one feline caregiver says early in the film, "People who don't love animals can't love people either."

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