In the new documentary Kedi, directed by Turkish filmmaker Ceyda Torun, cats roam the streets of Istanbul like urchins in a Dickens novel, darting down alleyways and clambering up drainpipes, hunting for food scraps and occasionally brushing against the legs of the local vendors and shopkeepers who have become their adoptive caretakers. The cats make up part of the lifeblood of the city; far from constituting a public nuisance, they are met with warmth and affection by just about everyone who encounters them. In this urban version of the peaceable kingdom humans and animals live side by side, sharing resources and looking out for one another selflessly. A generous reading of Kedi would describe it as a portrait not just of the cats but also the people who tend to them, and the urban space they jointly occupy.
As a film about the flavor of a particular city Kedi owes something to the city symphony films of the silent era—things like Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis and Rien Que Les Heures—while its whimsical and generous tone calls to mind the documentaries of Agnes Varda and Chris Marker (two of the great cat lovers in cinema, incidentally). On more than one occasion it attempts rather unnecessarily to make points about society’s obligation to care for all of its members, whether two-legged or four-legged: the cats are routinely anthropomorphized as homeless people, as when a female cat is shown stealing a crust of bread to bring back to her kittens, like a feline Jean Valjean. (Other observations made by some of the human interviewees are borderline cloying.) So the film’s insights are not particularly deep. It’s at its most beguiling when it simply observes the behavior of its performers in all their idiosyncratic, streetwise charm. Back in 2012 I wrote about the inherent watchability of animals and film history’s long-standing fascination with cats as visual subjects, which stretches back to the silent era. Kedi is only the most recent in a long tradition of films in which the camera holds the visage of the cat—enigmatic, pre-possessing, otherworldly—in its fascinated gaze.