Good documentaries are about more than just their subject. They should give you a wider sense of the world while simultaneously focusing in on a specific idea or object. In this sense, Turkish filmmaker Ceyda Torun’s Kedi (Turkish for “cat”) is a good documentary. It is ostensibly about Istanbul’s massive stray cat population and the citizens’ affection for said felines, but the film functions also as a glimpse into a city that is often ignored in cinema. Istanbul is a beautiful, sprawling combination of old-world charm and imposing new architecture, the latter of which is slowly working to obliterate the former. Cats have to fit somewhere into this changing environment, and they tend to be what helps those who are left behind in this shift to cope with the onset of the future.
For decades, Disney has put out animal documentaries like African Cats, which are frequently narrated by big stars like Samuel L. Jackson and involve a not insignificant amount of anthropomorphism on the part of the filmmakers. The end result can be insufferable and jarring, especially when one of the cute lions we’ve been following starts maiming an antelope for its dinner. Fortunately, Torun avoids that for the most part, allowing Kira Fontana’s xylophone-filled score to drive the narrative, as well as the introduction of various Istanbulites who offer their own cat-related stories. Some of the cats have names, some don’t, but as the film constantly remind us, they all have individual personalities.
As a cat-indifferent person (sorry, Internet), I found this incessant projection to be annoying. The people interviewed in the film all have colorful personalities, the kind of eccentrics who are given to interacting better with silent animals than other humans. I have less of an issue with Torun’s approach, which is mostly observational and involves no direct interference on the part of the filmmakers, and more with how other people insist on understanding and knowing what animals are thinking. While this very human tendency did make for some eye-rolling moments (no, cats don’t feel the presence of God, because they’re cats), Torun provides plenty of compelling insight into the way that a fundamentally anti-social method of dealing with personal trauma (i.e., preferring cats over humans) can be the most effective kind.
The main draw of this film is the beautiful cinematography by Alp Korfali and Charlie Wuppermann, who have apparently seen a few films shot by Emmanuel Lubezki. They have a great deal of help in the wonderfully photogenic qualities of Istanbul, a city that is variegated in terms of its scenery, whether it’s the dank alleys of the harbor, a crowded market, or vine-thatched storefronts. Torun keeps the camera mostly at a cat’s-eye level, a process I’d love to know how they accomplished, given how skittish cats can be. The cats themselves are invariably majestic to look at, frequently framed in shallow focus with a background of the setting sun. Compared to dogs, which are often charmingly sloppy, cats are naturally regal animals that photograph extremely well. That said, as Godard once quipped, “Every cut is a lie,” so we don’t really know how much unflattering feline footage is on the cutting-room floor, but as Torun presents them, these are some nice-looking cats.
The film is 80 minutes long, which feels a bit excessive, considering how thin its premise is. If social media is any indication, people really can watch cat videos all day, so think of Kedi like an extremely well produced sibling to the clips that crowd our Facebook timelines. I personally would have enjoyed Kedi far more had it been half as long and if the people had been left out of the picture. Pet-ownership, however, is a near-universal quality among humanity, so I expect that most audiences can relate to the film on that level. Kedi‘s real value is in its visual depiction of a grand city, warts and all. Like a cat, Kedi is easily distracted by, well, the cats.
Documentary | Oscilloscope