The locals carry the tiny kitten’s form gently. It got into a fight with a larger cat, who threw it to the ground, and the kitten is clinging to life — if it’s alive at all.
They bring the little feline to the big man seated at a nearby table. In his large hands, he cradles the kitten, clicking and tutting at it to see if it might rouse itself. He listens for breath.
Carefully, quickly, he gets up from the table and calls a car. He needs to get this kitten to a veterinarian before it’s too late.
So it goes on the streets of Istanbul, as it goes everywhere humans live and thrive. Our cats come with us, some escape the bonds of domesticity, and their shadow society grows up around us. In Ceyda Torun’s new documentary Kedi, that society gets its due.
This is the kind of movie I love best — one that starts small, then reveals, slowly but surely, that all of life is contained somewhere inside of it. On one level, Kedi is just a movie about cats. But on another level, it’s about what it means to live alongside other creatures anywhere you might be able.
The history of a place is in the history of its cats
Appropriately, the companion piece to Kedi might be Morgan Spurlock’s 2016 documentary Rats, which is just what it sounds like. Both films are about how the spread of human society has brought with it certain animals (who drove other animals out), and both films reveal the complicated, mutually beneficial relationship humans have struck up with these creatures, even if they might not always want to admit it.
But where Rats was mostly interested in providing information about rats — how do they live, what do humans do about them, how does Spurlock feel about rats, etc. — Kedi, fittingly, is both more graceful and a little more mysterious, just like its subjects.
The vast majority of the film focuses on a handful of Istanbul cats, some of whom have owners, some of whom split their time between home and the street, and some of whom are feral. Kedi’s center gradually reveals itself via side-by-side portraits of these distinctive felines and the people who love and care for them, sometimes in spite of themselves.
It posits that cats stand in as useful simulacra for humans, that you can read the history of a place in the history of its cats. Istanbul has so many street cats of so many different breeds, for instance, because its ports allowed cats from all over the world to slip into its byways, and as the city modernizes with luxury developments, more and more cats are displaced — just like the lower income people living around them and often caring for them.
By the end of its trim, 80-minute running time, Kedi is asking questions like “How do we live in society without destroying each other?” and “Could you ever prove God exists?” without straining under the burden of those questions — a remarkable feat for a movie that spends so much time on cute kitten footage. Our relationship with the animals around us that we can destroy casually and easily, the film suggests, is our relationship with everything.
And the people we meet throughout Kedi are just as fascinating as the animals. Here are the deli owners who have slowly but surely been trained by a cat that sits outside and paws on the window when it wants some smoked turkey. There is the man who credits his survival of a nervous breakdown to caring for the many feral cats in his neighborhood. Torun exudes compassion for all the subjects of his film, no matter the number of legs.
If you’re not a cat lover (and, honestly, how dare you?), Kedi may be a tougher sit for you than it will be for those who bear great affection for the animals. But even those not predisposed to love the film will find something worthwhile in its long, graceful passages where Torun’s camera adopts a cat’s eye view, following kitties up and down city streets as they look for food, pets, or just something to do.
A good documentary digs deep into its subject matter. A great one digs deep enough to reveal the tangled tendrils of its root system and how they connect to everything else, without seeming to try too hard. With its elegant, mirroring structure and subtle nods to the world at large, Kedi falls much more into the latter category than the former.
Kedi is playing in New York and will expand throughout the country in the weeks to come. Go here to find out when it’s coming to your town.