The Most Beautiful Fraud: Kedi

It is a false dichotomy to say that in this world there are cat people and there are dog people, and never the twain shall meet.  There are many — myself included — who love the company of both animals, and have been lucky enough to have both dog and cat companions over the course of their lives.  But it is also roughly true to say that a lot of people prefer either cats or dogs, and look upon those with the opposite preference with a kind of bewildered suspicion.  (I’ve never been able to understand, for example, why people who live in cramped urban areas are so fond of huge dogs.)

America, for the most part, is a dog country.  This is partly for practical reasons, but more importantly, for cultural ones:  we mythologize the free open spaces where dogs love to roam, and we are a country obsessed with a particular kind of masculinity, which plays into the odd stereotype that dogs are manly and cats are feminine.  And, for all our talk of independence, we disdain in in our inferiors:  dogs may be our friends but they are also our dependents, and exist in a sort of happy state of slavery.  A cat, conversely, never tires of showing you how little it needs you.

Turkey, on the other hand, is a country of cats, and Istanbul is its crown jewel.  Cats have roamed freely in the streets of the city for over a thousand years, brought there by rich fishing yields from the Bosphorus, foreign traders who kept them as rat-catchers aboard ships laden with foodstuffs, and rich hunting in the densely packed urban centers.  Unlike most metropoles, Istanbul has embraced its street cats as co-citizens rather than nuisances, and the cats of the city exist in a strange state somewhere between being pets and being feral.  Kedi, a new documentary by expat Turkish filmmaker Ceyda Torun, invites us to meet some of the cats of her home town and the humans they interact with.

Kedi is visually splendid, more a combination of travelogue and nature documentary than feature film, serving to highlight the beauty of the city of Istanbul as much as the cats who dwell there.  Torun’s husband, Charlie Wupperman, handled most of the cinematography, and together with Alp Korfali, they developed a number of clever and innovative camera techniques — including night-vision mini-cameras, motorized skateboards, and suspended overhead drones — to follow its feline subjects around. The results are stunning close-ups, lovely tracking shots, and hilariously speedy chases at shoe level through markets, restaurants, and alleyways.

One of the reasons that dogs tend to show up more often in films and television, whether narrative or documentary, is that they can be trained to perform for the camera.  Cats, as a rule, don’t give a fuck, which is why these camera techniques are so vital to Kedi‘s success:  while the street cats are as indifferent as ever to the presence of human eyes and their surrogates, the agility of these devices catch them darting under café tables, leaping from tree to rooftop, staring down intruders on their turf, and stalking rats for their nightly meal.  Torun picks a good batch of cats to stock her film with memorable personalities:  the jealous and aggressive Psikopat, the affectionate Bengu, the adventurous Gamsiz, the gentlemanly Duman who paws at the door of his local restaurant, waiting to be fed his very particular dinner.

For people who love to watch cats display their quirky and fascinating personalities — which, let’ s be honest, constitutes about 99% of the likely audience for Kedi — their attention will be richly rewarded. The many moods of F. catus are on full display here, and it’s an endless treat to watch them hissing in rage, napping in the sun, tracking prey with laser focus, purring and lolling with their human caretakers, darting between commuter’s feet in train stations, and leaping gracefully (or dangling clumsily) from high perches.  But the humans of Kedi are also fascinating, ranging across likes of class and wealth, occupation and social status, politics and religion — all united in their curious relationship with cats.

Kedi manages neatly to stay in its lane.  It doesn’t try to make any grand statements about life on earth, though it does highlight the way cats can be the saviors of humans as often as the reverse is true.  It avoids veering into the politics of turbulent Turkey, though we hear references to religious turmoil, see anti-Erdogan graffiti, and get occasional references to the way corporatization and urban sprawl are robbing Istanbul of the natural splendor that once made it a paradise for cats.  It recognizes that all these things are important to a story about cats in Istanbul, but never strays too far from the essence of those who elements.  And while the humans are an enjoyable lot — the bohemian young woman who hosts a procession of strays in her art gallery, the grizzled and luckless fisherman who takes his cat along on trips to sea, the pair of women who cook 15 pounds of chicken a day to feed all the street cats on their block, the couple who owns a bakery and puts all their tip money into a veterinarian fund, and especially the damaged but gregarious man who leads a train of cats through his neighborhood, hinting at the mental breakdown he suffered and their role in his recovery — the cats are still the stars, and those who love them will wish Kedi‘s lean 80-minute run time was twice as long.

The history of American film and television, much like the history of America itself, is one where dogs eat up most of the attention, because cats are too aloof and independent to cling to people, let alone celluloid.  Kedi, a surprising box office hit that has transcended its humble origins, is a necessary tonic for cat lovers, an affecting and affectionate work for all its slightness, and a glimpse into an alternate world where cats are the kings of cinema.

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