Turkish Cat Documentary ‘Kedi’ is a Beautiful, Profound Meditation on the Joy that Animals Bring to Our Lives

A day in the life of seven Istanbul street cats.

It’s hard explaining the appeal of animals to people who don’t like animals. It’s like trying to explain color to a blind person — there’s really no way to convey just how deep the love one can have for a pet, or for animals in general, can be. Objectively, the whole idea of keeping animals as companions seems strange: they can’t talk; your communication with them is limited to commands and observations that yes, you are indeed a good dog; and they have no more understanding of how you see the world than you do of how they perceive it.

And yet, as anyone who does love animals will know, there’s perhaps nothing more purely joyous than the company of a cat, or a dog, or any other creature that happens to come across you in its daily routine and stops to hang out for a while. It’s a joy that’s captured marvelously well by Kedi, which is director Ceyda Torun’s paean to the cats of Istanbul. If you’ve ever visited the city, you’ll know that there are many, many cats there — it is, after all, the city that gave us this fellow. Kedi provides a wonderful portrait of the lives of seven such cats, of the people who love them, and of the city itself.

Plenty of observers have noted that the film is as much about the last two of those subjects as it is about the first, which is true, but it’s important not to sell the former short; while the film certainly provides plenty of fascinating insights into the life of the city, it’s first and foremost about the cats themselves. Torun must have shot oodles of film (or, y’know, filled up a ton of flash cards), because her camera captures every aspect of the animals’ lives: their daily patrols around their appointed territory, the fierce love and care they give to their young, their long hours sleeping and/or derping happily in the sun, the clever ways in which they feed themselves (which doesn’t always just involve either getting fed by people or stealing people’s food when they’re not looking), and their social interactions.

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All of this is rendered in some of the most beautiful cinematography you’ll see anywhere — Torun’s camera follows the cats at street level, making it feel like you’re right there with them as they forage and wander, and then pulls back for picture postcard shots of Istanbul (which is, of course, one of the world’s prettiest cities.) Her letter to the audience, which accompanied the film’s release, relates her own affection for these most fascinating of creatures: “I grew up in Istanbul and I believe my childhood was infinitely less lonesome than it would have been if it werenʼt for cats — and I wouldnʼt be the person I am today.” It shows.

Her letter also notes that she “missed their presence in all the other cities [she] ever lived in.” This is an interesting point. There’s a tendency in countries where animals aren’t allowed to roam the streets of cities willy-nilly — countries like America, for instance — to assume that street cats/dogs/etc are “strays” and that they live lives of misery. This isn’t true at all — these were, after all, originally wild animals, and while a cat that has lived all its life in an apartment and then gets lost will struggle to survive on the street, animals born into this life cope with it perfectly well. I’ve lived in cities where there were plenty of local cats and dogs just hanging out on any and every street, and I’ve been surprised at how much I’ve missed them since. Animals, as I noted above, enrich our lives in unpredictable ways.

This is certainly true for the humans of Kedi. Perhaps the film’s most memorable non-feline character is the gentleman who appears to spend pretty much his entire life caring for street cats. We follow him as he visits a colony based in a field, and he’s familiar enough with the cats that he notices immediately that one is missing — no mean feat considering that there are perhaps 30 or 40 cats surrounding him, all rubbing up against his legs and headbutting him affectionately as they wait for him to dole out their treats. The missing cat, it turns out, has just given birth, and we follow the man as he visits her and her kittens, explaining as he goes that he has suffered from crippling depression for years, and that if it wasn’t for his cat friends, he probably wouldn’t be alive. The tenderness with which he treats the new mother will bring a tear or two to many eyes, and rightly so.

There’s a similar devotion shown by many of the film’s other characters — the boatman who we find feeding several tiny kittens from a bottle, nursing them to health after their mother has disappeared; the baker who explains that he and his colleagues all have running tabs with the local vet, tabs that the vet in question is never overly strict in collecting on; the gruff iron worker who starts by telling us that the cats are only here because he’s tried to shoo them away but they’ve refused to leave, and a minute later is telling us earnestly how much he loves them. The animals’ ability to elicit kindness and tenderness from people is as great a gift as the simple and profound peace you feel with a cat asleep on your lap.

The film ends on a pensive note, with a visit to a market in the city’s outskirts, which is currently home to a large colony of cats, but which will soon be demolished to make way for a high-rise apartment complex. Several of the people that Torun speaks to express concern for their animal friends: where will they go? What will they do when there’s no more food to be had from the market? The answer, in this case, is probably that they’ll do just fine — cats are survivors, after all. But the situation speaks to a wider point about urbanization and destruction of habitats, and also about the apparent desire on the part of Istanbul’s administrators to rid the city’s streets of stray animals. We can only hope that this doesn’t happen; it would be a cruel and unnecessary extermination of creatures who have lived there for many generations, and it would rob the city and its citizens of one of the things that makes it special.