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Cats are natural-born performers. Just ask the director of the documentary Kedi.

Then again, “we have hours of footage of cats licking themselves,” says director Ceyda Torun on our podcast.

This cat sauntered into the perfect light to complete a memorable shot in Kedi.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

The best movie of 2017 so far — if you ask me — is director Ceyda Torun’s lovely documentary Kedi, which follows the lives of several street cats in Istanbul.

Some have to scrap to stay alive, while others have developed a friendly co-existence with the locals. But all are fascinating characters and provide Torun a window into the people of Istanbul and the city’s rich history. (You can read my rave review of the film here.)

And yet mounting a documentary about cats — who might not seem to be natural-born actors in the way that, say, dogs are — might seem tricky. Sure, a cat might do something cute for the length of an internet video. But for a whole movie?

Thus, when I spoke to Torun for the latest episode of my podcast, I Think You’re Interesting, I made sure to ask how her subjects felt about being filmed — which is to say if they were at least somewhat aware of the camera’s presence, or could tell it was a new addition to their relationship with the director.

Torun told me that not only were the cats aware of the camera’s presence, but some of them actually seemed to hit beats and know just what she was looking for, like a human actor might.

I found that they became aware of the camera in a very similar way that they became aware of another person. It was almost like the lens was like a giant eye to them. They could see their own reflection in it, but it was almost as if they understood that they were being filmed, and they seemed to have appreciated it.

There are many shots in the film, where you say, “Wow, how did they get that shot?” Honestly, a lot of times, cats did it for us. There’s a cat that’s on the ledge of a roof toward the end of the film, the sun is setting behind him. He walks the ledge, sits down right in front of the sunset, looks our direction, kind of blinks knowingly. Behind the camera, our jaws had dropped open. We were like, “Wow. I can’t believe he just did that!” Then we were, like, “Could you do it again?” [Laughs.] And he would go around the ledge and do it again. It was a very interesting experience.

But if they didn’t want to be filmed, they were very clear from the very beginning. They would run away, and that was the end of that.

But making Kedi wasn’t all cats taking lazy strolls along rooftops in front of the setting sun. Filming cats in Istanbul required relying on assistance from the people whose homes those cats might drift through, and it also required thinking like a cat — which meant figuring out ways to move vertically as well as horizontally.

Torun explains:

We couldn’t set up cameras in certain strategic places and hope [cats] would pass by. … It was literally endless possibilities of where cats could be.

So the only way we could achieve it was if we were at least two cameras following a cat and really imposing ourselves on people and relying on people to say, “Oh, the ginger tabby’s back.” We were in a small van, we were very mobile, and we would dart across the city and film whatever she’d be doing. …

In this particular film, the biggest challenges were, the cats wanted to also come and sit on our laps a lot and be petted a lot. ... So there were times often that we’d get in perfect frame, perfect shot, and then the cat would start walking and sit on the camera or start rubbing her face on the camera rig or start licking herself. [Groans.] We have hours of footage of cats licking themselves.

Now, obviously, the rooftop cat sitting in the sun wasn’t consciously aware of what it was doing. More likely, it was just being a cat, looking for the perfect spot to lay in to capture the last rays of the warm sun. But there’s still something evocative about the idea of a cat, looking for its best light, making sure its director is capturing it just so.

For much, much more on Kedi, street cats, and Istanbul, check out the latest episode of I Think You’re Interesting. And if you like this one, there are plenty of other great installments in the archives. More episodes are available on iTunes and Android apps.

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