Istanbul is the kingdom of cats. Anyone who has been to the city knows that the hundreds of thousands of street cats roaming everywhere are its beating heart. In her new dreamlike documentary Kedi (Turkish for ‘cat’) Ceyda Torun follows seven kitties on their daily rounds along Istanbul’s iconic waterfront.
Among Kedi’s stars is Gamsiz the Player, a black-and-white tom living in the arty Cihangir neighbourhood who solicits food and fuss from his many adoring fans, among them, an actress and a baker who describes himself as “Gamsiz’s main human”; Sari the Hustler, a ginger-and-white beauty who charms, begs, steals food from pavement cafés and market stalls bringing it back for her kittens; a white black-masked bruiser and fish thief, known around the neighbourhood as Psikopat the Psycho, who frequents the old teahouse and ferociously defends her patch; and Duman, a smoky-gray with silvery-green eyes nicknamed ‘the Gentleman’ by the owners of a fancy delicatessen, where he regularly dines, pawing at the window when he wants food and waiting patiently outside while they prepare his meals of artisan meats and cheeses.
“Everyone who lives here has a story about a cat,” says Torun, the Turkish-American filmmaker for whom the street cats were an integral part of her childhood. “I grew up in Istanbul and they were my friends and confidants. They’re such a big part of the culture that when President Obama visited Istanbul, he stopped at the Hagia Sophia to see its famous cats. I missed their presence in all the other cities I’ve lived in.”
Most cities sadly treat strays as a nuisance. For thousands of years, cats have roamed wild around Istanbul, where they are loved and revered, wandering in and out of people’s lives and becoming an essential part of the communities that have made the city so rich. “They have seen empires rise and fall,” as one feline-loving interviewee puts it.
Some of the cats fend for themselves, hunting, scavenging and living in abandoned buildings, while many are cared for and pampered by communities of people. Shopkeepers, grocers and waiters all collectively look after their feline inhabitants, feeding them, taking them to the vet when they’re ill or injured, building them tiny fleece-lined houses and welcoming them into their homes, businesses and mosques during storms and the winter months.
In her beautifully shot, feel-good flick, cats sit at café tables, perch on motorcycles, sleep and sunbathe on rooftops, play in flower-filled courtyards, wander its blue mosques and stay for dawn prayers.
The gorgeous felines and glimpses of the romantic cityscapes are enthralling enough. But the film has so much more, shimmering with humanity amid the conflict and unrest that has long defined this ancient, sprawling metropolis, as some of the residents reflect on what the animals have brought to their lives.
“Some want affection, others will tell you of their troubles,” says one woman, who prepares 20lb of chicken daily, feeding dozens of alleycats. A local businessman, who walks around town feeding the strays, says that the cats healed the emotional scars of his past and rescued him after a nervous breakdown; while another man, who has running tabs at all the local vets, says that “people who don’t love animals can’t love people either”. This reverence of cats is deeply rooted in Islam and there is a local saying: ‘If you kill a cat, you have to build a mosque to be forgiven by God.’