O my Best Beloved, when the Tame animals were wild.
The Dog was wild, and the Horse was wild, and the Cow was wild, and the Sheep was wild, and the Pig was wild —as wild as wild could be—and they walked in the Wet Wild Woods by their wild lones.
But the wildest of all the wild animals was the Cat.
Even if you have never read Kipling’s poem, you will know that cats occupy a mysterious place in our lives, wild as can be but perfectly adapted to life alongside humans. This is especially true of the street cats of Istanbul. Naturally there are some house cats, living in apartments – but most of the city’s cats live in a transient inbetween: not quite pets, not quite feral creatures either.
They move between the human world, the city, and their own world silently, coming and going as they please, dissolving our imaginary barriers. As Kipling put it, all places are alike to the cat.
The film Kedi – which means cat in Turkish – explores that feline independence and celebrates it. Documenting the lives of seven of Istanbul’s infamous and beloved street cats, the film captures what the animals go through on a daily basis and how their own tiny dramas – from new life to territorial males – are intertwined with the lives of the humans they live alongside.
There is no real separation between the cats’ world and ours in Kedi – the work of director Ceyda Torun and cinematographer Charlie Wupperman – and the first feature-length production by their company, Termite Films.
I met with Torun and Wupperman when they were in Istanbul for the film’s premier. They told me they’d intended the film to be a kind of urban nature documentary – but the cats they found, and the people who look after them, took the film in a different direction entirely.
“It turns out the people are really interesting, you know. It’s really what makes the cats interesting, their relationship with humans,” said Wupperman. “They’re less pets than dogs are because we never domesticated cats. They just chose to co-exist. And when humans started agriculture, ten, eleven thousand years ago, they built barns and then came the mice, and the cats came out of the wilderness and joined but they are not really like pets.”
One of the film’s most beautiful moments arises as a man describes the consciousness of the cat: a cat is aware of god, he says, and so unlike a dog is not dependent on one person’s love or affection. Cats know better. They also mirror us – as anyone who has ever made eye contact with an Istanbul street cat will know, there is an awareness in their gaze that is not just an animal registering your existence. They see you, and you see them. “It’s a mutual taking and giving,” says Wupperman.
And so the cats don’t just exist in the city – they’re an active part of it, and have adapted to urban life with tenacity. On virtually every street you will see small kedi evi, houses built for the cats to live in, and plastic containers of food and water placed in safe spots between plants or on doorsteps. A friend of mine joked recently that in the era of smartphones, the job of a kapıcı – a doorman – is not to fetch and carry things for apartment residents, but to look after the local street cats. There is a cat that lives in the anarchist café in Taksim, and she comes to sit on the chair next to you and watch you as you read. There are cats in mosques, in churches, on boats, in the metro stations: they form a wild animal world that, if we pay attention to it, is a relief in such a relentless city. Kedi is not just a portrait of the cats, which is what makes it so compelling: through the cats’ stories, new stories of Istanbul itself are told.
Torun grew up in Istanbul, and wanted to make the film in large part to document a place that is changing rapidly.
“I was born here, we moved when I was eleven. We came back every summer, and I came back for a couple of years when I was in my early twenties. But then it was only for two years unfortunately. But I still came back every summer. So it gave me an interesting perspective, kind of like seeing a relative only once a year and you see them grow and grow and grow over the years. You really see the change,” she said.
One of the things that has changed most since Torun’s childhood is Istanbullus’ access to nature and green space.
“One of the things that I frequently reference is the fact that as a child, as children, we would play ball on the streets and it was totally doable. And you could even stop traffic and play, or people would go around you or something. I think the population was around four million or something, and I grew up in Caddebostan, where it’s even more residential. Now, nobody has a hope of playing football on the streets.”
Torun was clear that the film is not “an activist film.” It’s subject matter, though, means that it records a time and place undergoing irreversible and rapid change.
“The inherent beauty of making a documentary is that you do document something as it is. And so if for nothing, in twenty years you can look at this film and see how things were in Istanbul at this time, and at least it will serve that purpose of being a document of what Istanbul is like right now. I wish I had that from the late 70s too, or my mother’s childhood. But I think the film ended up being a general call to start a conversation about how we actually plan urban spaces and manage the balance of nature in that urban space.”
The cats of Kedi have succeeded in adapting to wild things – the weather, other cats and animals, trees and the capricious winds and currents of the Bosphorus shore – much more gracefully, it seems, than we have. They are also more than at home in the urban, however. Many of them live out the majority of their lives in markets, fishing spots, and restaurants, where they benefit from both the kindness and the waste of humans. In turn what they offer those people, captured in their steady gaze, is a connection to a natural world that has all but disappeared. For Torun, this emptiness, the lack of any time spent in nature, the overcrowding into smaller and smaller apartments, is an important part of the story the film tells.
“It’s interesting to see how we’ve all shrunk a bit, we’ve all become apartment people, apartment humans. In a way cats have also become apartment cats as opposed to being garden cats, you know. And the people have changed. And so part of the reason and the aim behind the documentary was to explore Istanbul and how Istanbul has changed. What is timeless about Istanbul, what doesn’t change about Istanbul, what does change – just to try to give a visual reference to it,” she said.
That inexhaustible capacity for change and loss works in tension with the physical appeal of Istanbul. “I just love the city. It’s so beautiful. You know you have all the hills, and you look between the buildings and you see the Bosphorus again, and that’s just so amazing. I think that just appeals to me, that we could shoot these beautiful animals in a beautiful place,” said Wupperman.
From a cinematic point of view, then, that beauty is powerful and almost absolute. No matter how dirty the Bosphorus is, or how many construction sites you can see across the water, the Bosphorus will still be its captivating self. Even as new construction projects in Galata and Kabataş re-shape the water’s edge in line with the government’s vision for the city, people will still find whatever space they can to sit by the water and drink çay. By following the city’s feline residents, Kedi also captures what is enduring about the city – its ways of life, the minute interactions at cafes and on the street, the markets.
“I wanted to make sure we wouldn’t show Istanbul only beautifully. It ended up looking beautiful of course, because Istanbul is beautiful, but I feel like there are angles – if you see a shot where there is a crooked development of a building, and behind it is this ancient church bell, you know, and then past it is the mosque, you know you can choose to see the ancient stuff, the beautiful chaotic way that Istanbul is, or you can look at it and say: Who built an extra floor, and illegal floor, on a beautiful apartment building from the 1850s, right next to this church, look at this, and it’s falling apart! You can see some of the wrongs that are being done, that have happened in Istanbul, and you can hopefully also see the beautiful things that are there.”
Kedi is a film about cats that mirrors an entire society in a state of flux, and a city that persists regardless of what we do to it: a record of the city and a love song to the wildest and most knowing of neighbours, the street cats of Istanbul.
Keep an eye on kedifilm.com and the Kedi Facebook page for updates on screenings.