On its surface, Cedya Torun’s wonderful documentary “KEDi” is about several street cats in Istanbul. And on its surface, “KEDi” will surely please those who value slice-of-life glimpses of cats in foreign lands. It is an extremely well crafted work from a first-time filmmaker who knows how to effectually engage audiences.
If that’s all the film was about.
In Turkey’s largest city, hundreds of thousands of cats roam the ever-growing metropolis freely. From the days of Byzantium and Constantinople, felines have wandered in and out of people’s lives, becoming an essential part of the communities that make the city so rich. Claiming no owners, these animals live between two worlds, neither wild nor tame, and they bring joy and purpose to those people they choose to adopt. To the people of Istanbul, cats are the mirrors to their own lives, allowing them to reveal truths about themselves in ways little else could. Torun focuses on seven different cats in various regions of the city, each with a unique personality and relationship to the residents and business operators around them. We are first introduced to Sari, a yellow and white tabby who hustles, begs, steals and gets what she needs for her new brood of kittens. Then we meet Bengü, a grey tabby who lives in the Karaköy industrial area of town and has won the hearts of the workingmen of the area. Aslan Parçasi is a longhaired black-and-white cat that has made it his mission to fend off mice and rats from a seaside café in Kandilli. Psikopat is a shorthaired black-and-white cat in Samatya who fears no one, bullies her spouse, keeps rivals out of her territory and makes even tough guys respect her. Deniz is a grey and white tabby who loves to play with the vendors and shoppers of a local organic market. Gamsiz is another shorthaired black-and-white cat in the artists’ neighborhood of Cihangar and is more a lover than a fighter… not that he won’t defend himself and his territory if another wannabe alpha male comes a’callin. And Duman is the gentleman, a shorthaired grey cat who has made his home around a delicatessen in Nisantasi, the poshest part of Istanbul, but would never dare to just go inside to get some food.
All these cats, and the many others seen in transition shots, are sure to warm the hearts of even the most jaded person, even the tough as nails Psikopat, who’s just taking care of business. But where “Kedi” really shines in how it captures how the people of Istanbul and their relationships with these not-feral but not-domesticated cats. In what is easily the most emotional scene in the film, one of the merchants talking to the filmmakers about Deniz is handed a little kitten that lives in the vicinity and is looked after by Deniz that is lifeless. And just like that, the merchant leaves the market to take the little guy to a local vet to try and save its life. He leaves his little space in the market to try and help save the life of a kitten that is not specifically his.
Let that sink in for a moment.
And then let it sink in that Turkey is an almost-exclusively Muslim country straddling Eastern Europe and Western Asia. For in another time, this might not be an important distinction, but as this is being written, in early 2017, with anti-Muslim sentiments at an all-time high in this writer’s home country, it is more important than ever for my fellow countrymen to be exposed to positive views of Muslim people, to fight the hysteria gripping my land. These fishermen and shop owners and artists look a whole hell of a lot like people of my nation, dress a whole hell of a lot like people of my nation, and speak a whole hell of a lot like people of my nation… except they speak in a different language, of course.
Torun’s ultimate goal was to show her hometown in ways that went beyond tour guides and news headlines, exploring philosophical themes that would make audiences ponder their relationships to cats, to nature and to each other. To this effect, she has wildly succeeded beyond she probably ever expected to. When one shopkeeper says, when talking about the city’s citizens attitudes towards the cats that “They say cats know that we’re not God… They know we’re just the middlemen,” it’s a truthful sentiment that goes beyond individual religious dogmas. These words could be spoken by a Christian, a Jew, a Buddhist, a Hindu, a Sikh, a Taoist or anyone from a thousand other beliefs and it would still ring true. It’s a truth that even an atheist could get mostly behind. And that’s where “Kedi” thrives so well: sharing universal truths that transcend location and religion. And, of course, it doesn’t hurt to have a whole mess of cute kitties to help make the medicine go down, as it were.
Kedi opens at the Metrograph in New York City on February 10th, and expands throughout America and Canada in February and March. Learn more about the film and see if it’s opening in your area at the film’s website.Rating: A