About five minutes into Kedi, I realized that I wanted to talk at length with its director, Ceyda Torun, over mug after mug of fragrant, honeyed tea. How did she get such roving, intimate shots of the secret lives of cats? Where did she learn the patience to simply let felines, especially stray and undomesticated felines, get comfortable enough with cameras and crews and cinematic apparatuses to simply be? More important, how did she get the people who love these cats—with equal parts adoration and exasperation—to open up so thoroughly? For it’s clear that when they talk about cats, they’re talking about the deepest parts of themselves—who they think they are, who they wish they were, what they desire most about the world. One man muses that dog lovers love dogs because dogs imagine that their humans are God. “Cats are not ungrateful,” he says, accurately, “but they know better.” Cats know that we are, if anything, God’s middlemen—and they treat us accordingly.
Cats inspire such philosophical rumination and everyday poetry, and so does Kedi. Shot through with voluptuous colors, its camera moves languidly but attentively enough to capture Istanbul’s street cats in their ever-furtive motion, antic and gamboling through corner stores, fruit stands, cafes, alleys, docks, apartments, and mechanic’s shops. Cats have their ears always cocked (even in sleep), alert and edgy even when relaxed. They are naturally skittish; Kedi is not. The camera moves but it’s not restless. Because of this patience, this calm intent, Torun and her crew capture cat life in ways that seem frankly unbelievable. There’s an overhead shot of a ginger tabby sleeping soundly above an apartment window—that window’s about 20 stories up. There’s a piebald (like my own semi-sweet Zadie) slinking through a drainage line underneath a restaurant to catch a rat, and the cameras cut from above ground to below ground so fluidly that, again, I wonder how Torun knew how to be right where she was, right when she was, to catch the hunt. There’s a ginger that we initially think is just stealing food, and then we follow her for blocks and blocks and blocks with that hunk of meat in her mouth to a dim storefront staircase where we discover her kittens; she’s feeding the family, in a loving gesture that feels intensely human and decidedly alien all at once. Her observing human, a curly-headed, sharp-tongued woman, intuits the cat’s life: “She used to be much lazier,” the woman says, “but she’s changed a lot since she became a mother.” The woman, hard-eyed and chainsmoking (but outside her own shop; she’s got pride) as she is, grins admiringly at her feline friend.
“Friend” is essential. None of these cats are owned. Stray cats scramble through the Turkish metropolis by the millions, and, according to the only title card in Kedi, it’s sort of always been this way in Istanbul, even when it was Constantinople. But the film isn’t a treatise on the status of feral cats in one of the classic cities of civilization, in part because the cats aren’t exactly feral. They are loved, after all, and doted on and tolerated and worried over, by lots of humans. They are domesticated, to a degree, even if they run wild.
Here, I keep wanting to describe Kedi‘s virtues: its eerie beauty, its rhythmic editing, its use of interviews that cat lovers/observers to create accidental poetry in voiceover while we watch cats and humans alike, Kira Fontana’s percussive and searching score that never descends into syrup and bathos, despite the subject. Even as I watched this beautiful movie, I kept flinching at it, finding myself wanting to defend a documentary about cats from charges that it is superficial and sentimental. I kept flashing on something that Ray Carney once said:
“Sentimentality is any time you ask the viewer to feel something without forcing him to learn something. It’s emotion without knowledge. Feeling without thinking.”
I agree with him, though I think he’s dead-wrong about so many of the targets of his ire. And it’s easy to think that a lovingly shot movie about roaming cats and cute kittens would be dripping with easy sentimentality. It’s true that it’s an easy subject to love, especially if you’re already inclined to love cats (as I am), and Kedi is so easy to dismiss on paper. But the movie preserves so many feline mysteries that the movie itself is a kind of poetic revelry. Though plenty of people talk about cats here, they aren’t veterinarians, animal control specialists, shelter managers, or otherwise “experts.” There are no talking heads, in other words, no stats, no treatises or position points. There is instead lots of conversation about cats, most of it nonverbal. Cats communicate by touch. They touch, pat, claw, climb. As one woman notes, cats and humans don’t really understand each other verbally, are in fact aliens to each other, but learn to converse with each other anyway. There’s not exactly a narrative arc in Kedi. Instead, it’s free-associative, jazz-like, following one cat—and the human community that coalesces around it—until it doesn’t, settling into another neighborhood, another cat’s life. These impressionistic snapshots give a sense of life, a portrait of an ever-changing big city, without pretending to resolve Why Cats Are The Way They Are.
Because, really, who knows? I don’t even know why I love cats, much less why they are the way they are. I didn’t always love them. I didn’t have pets growing up. No family member was allergic; fuzzy things just weren’t allowed to come home with me. I didn’t get my first cat until I was done with college, and Eliza came to me by a series of happy accidents and an elementary-school teacher saying that I needed one. (I trusted her; I had house-sat her cats; I had a teensy crush on her, happily married though she was and still is.)
Owning Eliza changed me for the better. First of all, I learned quickly that you don’t “own” another creature, not in any real way that implies dominance. If anything, Eliza owned me, just as Greta owned me, just as Berry owned me, just as Zadie owns me now. After all, I fed them, bathed them, loved them, cleaned their shit and piss, all without expecting much in return beyond their energy. But that energy is huge. Several people in Kedi talk about it, that radiating force that gives out so much positivity even when the cat is being ornery. Toward the end of the film, we follow a sad-eyed but somehow jovial man who spends a part of every goddamn day, roaming his neighborhood (and even neighborhoods that seem far from his home) giving out raw fish to the dozens of cats that follow him. He’s like a Pied Piper of cats but none of those felines are marching to their deaths. Rather, they’re saving him. No. They’re saving him. In voiceover, he talks candidly, almost flatly, about how depression and anxiety were wracking his life, destroying it utterly. Pills didn’t work. Therapy didn’t work. The pain felt insurmountable. Somehow, and he doesn’t say how (and neither, poignantly, do the filmmakers), he found himself caring for the stray cats around him. He began caring about something bigger and utterly different from himself. And it saved him. He’s an odd duck, traipsing through city blocks with plastic bags full of fish guts in each hand, feeding all the strays following him like long-lost lovers, even inviting stares from passers-by. But he glows. He is at peace. When he says that caring for cats has saved him, Kedi shows it on his face, in the gentle quaver of his voice.
Another woman, in her small and bric-a-brac crowded apartment, cooks up to twenty pounds of chicken daily, making a chicken/cheese/pasta mix that she distributes throughout her neighborhood. The cats don’t follow her but they feel her presence. She is deeply loved. But I need to go back to the men, and why Kedi had me almost in tears with grace, not sentimentality. Ceyda Torun made me learn something about myself tonight. Throughout this movie, men speak tenderly, vulnerably, about love and care. Cats bring out the men’s best selves, largely through gesture. I thought about how rare it is to see men talking tenderly about anything, especially anything involving love and particularly affection, in American cinema. Tenderness, if present, is arch, synced up with jokey violence. And maybe these Turkish men aren’t as openly vulnerable with their male friends, or female spouses (or male spouses, which the Turkish government tends to believe don’t exist…), or relatives. But Kedi slyly shows them wavering and quivering in the presence of cats. There’s the fisherman who spends an inordinate amount of time caring for dockside kittens abandoned by their mother; the aforementioned neighborhood fish-strewer who nakedly says that this is “therapy” for him; the mechanic who pretends exasperation at Bengü, the cat who hides her kittens in his shop but who gets quietly teary when talking about her, and goes searching for her if he doesn’t see her first thing in the morning; the bazaar bookseller who swats at the cat nosing around his supply but who nearly crumbles with grief when he has to deal with a kitten who’s been badly hurt, cradling the near-dead baby guy in his hands and taking a taxi to a vet.
I learned tenderness and vulnerability by loving cats. Period. I had hid myself emotionally before having cats. I still do, to some degree, but I’d be even worse without cat love in my life. There are clear reasons for black men to hide how they really, nakedly feel in American society; ask the ghost of any African American activist who’s been beaten, shot, and tortured to death for expressing how he really feels about this country. Keeping it to yourself is simple self-preservation, sure, and I was taught it well by family, by society, by politics. But it leaves a scar, an inability to expose yourself to those who want to love you. Caring for cats started the long, slow process of leeching that out of me, by seeping in their mysterious good energy, felt with every rub on the ears, every warm hop into my lap after a hard day, every nip on the chin or low, insistent purr thrumming on my leg. Cats opened me up, and showed me how to give of myself—without expectation of reward—so that I could in turn receive.
I’m still learning. I always will be. But Kedi made me think of all that, to connect giving/receiving with being the parent of cats, of loving and caring for them and witnessing them as they died, of mourning and remembering them. The film does that most by observing cats, by showing them lyrically but refusing adamantly to explain that lyricism away, and by putting felines and humans in conversation with each other cinematically.
And I half-thought it would just be a bunch of internet memes and lazy Glamour Shots. I almost skipped it, had only glancingly heard of it in the first place. Kedi rewards attention, though, as do cats and people alike.