Creeping along the rooftops, slinking between café chairs, lounging on vines, curling up in metro stations, leaping through fish stalls, meditating in mosques – the cats of Istanbul are so familiar to locals that they are part of the urban fabric, indispensably entwined with its mercurial moods. But behind every pair of glinting eyes is a unique personality with its own story to tell. This is precisely the topic of director Ceyda Torun’s documentary film Kedi, which tells the tales of seven very particular cats of Istanbul. From the doting mother to the jealous housewife, the neighborhood thug to the pampered gourmet, these cats could be characters from a Dickens tale – and their human companions are no less compelling.
The prospect of filming a documentary on an intercontinental city of 15 million people is daunting. But while humans have fixed names and addresses, Istanbul’s cats inhabit an alternate plane of existence within the same city. “In the beginning we thought it could be like a nature documentary set in the city – we could capture them like lions in Africa. It turned out to be almost impossible,” director Torun told The Guide Istanbul. “It would have required a much bigger budget, larger team, a longer time of shooting. But we captured some of that, which I’m quite proud of.”
These physical restrictions pushed the film to focus on the interaction between cats and humans, which is the source of some of its most poignant moments. “One of the stories we found from this hand-written note on the mosque – ‘These are the water cups for these animals, don’t touch them unless you want to be desperate for water in the next life.’ It looked like a woman’s handwriting, so I assumed it was written by a woman,” says Torun. “We asked around and people said it was Necati who wrote that – and there he was, this big burly man lifting chains on the docks.”
Overturning the “crazy cat lady” cliché, Torun states that most of the fanatic cat-lovers they met while researching the film were actually men. But from salty fishermen to woman painters, the film shows cats as the common love of many classes, backgrounds, and lifestyles. “For me that’s the most exciting thing about the film – you see this whole range of people who care for the same animal,” says cinematographer Charlie Wupperman. “It’s something that brings everyone in the city together.”
When we see a cat lazing in the sun as we rush between our daily tasks, perhaps there is a note of fantasy in our love – don’t we all dream that we could have that feline freedom? A recurring motif in the film is that cats are therapeutic, especially for city-dwellers. “In major cities, we’re so separated from each other – either there’s a wall between us or there are so many people that you don’t want to touch each other. We stop being affectionate with each other,” says Torun. “Having cats as another outlet, another being that can give you that warmth and compassion is very healing for people.”
Predictably, the cats were more elusive to capture than their human appreciators. Torun and Wupperman were forced to use alternative methods to catch the cats in their natural habitat. “It was great fun coming up with all the different devices to chase cats, film cats,” says Wupperman. “We had cameras on long metal sticks that we could reach up to rooftops, we had a drone, we had a remote-control car that we put a camera on. It turns out the cats are very scared of the remote-control car, so they ran and we really had to chase them.” While the idea of placing a camera on the cats seemed more practical, it turned out that the animals have their own internal calibration. “We found the tiniest camera, no bigger than a one-lira coin and weighing about 1.5 grams. Then we had a tailor make a little cat outfit, so we could put the camera on the cat’s back. Even then the cat would lose its balance,” Wupperman explains.
For the sake of giving a balanced view, the filmmakers tried to include an Istanbul resident who would tell the other side of the story. But these ailurophobes – people who fear or hate cats – were even more elusive than the cats. “Those who really don’t like cats wouldn’t even talk to us. The idea that people who don’t love animals can’t love people was really true,” says Torun. “Some people said, ‘You’ve got to talk to that guy. I saw him kick a cat,’ but they wouldn’t even look us in the eye.”
The film premiered at the !f Istanbul International Independent Film Festival in 2016, and is having a spree of screenings across the US from February to March 2017. Find details of all the cities and dates on the Kedi website. Until then, there is infinite opportunity to discover the traits and habits of your own neighborhood cats, to share a little of their precarious freedom and reciprocal love.