Here’s The Story of The Essential Documentary of National Cat Day

In honor of “National Cat Day”, the critically-acclaimed documentary Kedi is back in theaters for one day on Friday.
By  · Published on October 26th, 2017

In honor of “National Cat Day”, the critically-acclaimed documentary Kedi is back in theaters for one day on Sunday.

Cities are spaces of social contract among their inhabitants. In Istanbul, Turkey’s infamous and peerlessly gorgeous metropolis, that communal agreement to co-exist in unison includes a species in addition to humans: cats. Not cats as in house-pets, mind you. But instead, hundreds of thousands of them who live out on the merciless streets of this wondrous Turkish city. Like they’ve done for centuries through the many layers of the city’s ancient history, Istanbul’s stray felines still roam freely through the cobblestone streets of this chaotic town that gloriously connects Asia and Europe. From the Karaköy neighborhood on the European part to the Kanlıca district on the opposite side of the Bosphorus Strait, from the elegance-filled roads and posh alleys of Nişantaşı to the arty, hipster corners of Cihangir, cats are in the very DNA of Istanbul. I would go as far as claiming that you can’t possibly grasp the essence of this messy, sprawling, bustling town of nostalgic beauty if you try to view it in isolation from its cat population.

Ceyda Torun’s delightful documentary Kedi (it’s Turkish for “cat”, in case you haven’t guessed), a love letter to Istanbul’s cats and communities who take care of them without claiming possessive ownership over them, not only gets this intertwined nature of cats and the city, but is also declaratively proud of it. Just look at the film’s title to gather clues into this pride: there is, I suspect, a reason why Torun’s disarming documentary owns up to and uses its Turkish title around the world. Because why translate a word that is as Istanbul as it gets, as the crisp Bosphorus spray, the clinging sounds of mini teaspoons that stir small and shapely Turkish tea glasses, high-pitched seagulls and the smell of fried fish? As a Turk myself who spent a decent chunk of her life in Istanbul, I have certainly enjoyed hearing my American colleagues pronounce the word kedi over the last few months. (They do a pretty good job, to be honest.) It felt like Ceyda Torun’s documentary really spread a piece of my culture and background to people in faraway places that have never experienced it first-hand.

An Oscilloscope Laborites release, the critically-acclaimed Kedi became an astonishing Box Office story and a low-key sensation among moviegoers and cat lovers. (Turns out, cat videos don’t only break the Internet.) With a national gross nearing $3 million (distributor’s highest grosser ever), the love for Kedi is real and here to stay. And now with “National Cat Day” just around the corner this Sunday, Torun’s graceful documentary will meet the audiences in theaters once again and for one day only in honor of this “completely legitimate” holiday. Here’s a list of everywhere you can see Kedi for the first time or experience it again on big screen.

Meanwhile, I completely neglected to mention one big personal secret. Here it goes: I am not a cat person. In fact, I am pretty frightened of them. Not that my personal history with cats is of any interest to anyone, but it’s still important to spell it out here as an explanation to why it took me, a Turk and an unapologetically melancholic Istanbul lover, as long as it did to finally watch Kedi. I would like to think that I am a friend to all animals (but OK, dogs rule my world). And I surely want all good things for cats but well, I am a bit traumatized by them to be completely frank. It’s just something about the way they walk, stare, go through unpredictable patterns of behavior and the dozens of times they felt simply welcome to jump on my lap or sneak behind my back to help themselves to my food in Istanbul, completely uninvited. Look, I’ve heard it all from cat lovers. I’ve sat through numerous “here’s how MY cat is different” briefings from several well-intentioned people who didn’t understand my admittedly senseless phobia. When I moved from Istanbul to New York in 2000, knowing that I traded the endless parade of street cats with occasional sightings of squirrels was no small amount of relief. And since then, I have worked on my phobia in subtle ways. I learned how to be a little more relaxed around cats. A few years ago, one drunken night in Istanbul, I even picked one up. But I don’t think I ever completely understood what makes cats special until I had the pleasure of watching Torun’s documentary, in which her camera, stationed as low as a cat’s body, moves, settles and surveys the grounds of Istanbul just like a precarious cat with a purpose only known to him does.

Among the cats Torun portrays is the notorious forager Sarı of Galata Tower, who is known to “not give a sh*t” and primarily taken care of by a shopkeeper (in addition to other nearby locals) who feeds her day in and day out. Bengü of Karaköy is referred to as The Lover, having won the hearts of many of the neighborhood’s men. Aslan Parçası of Kandilli guards and feeds from a local fish restaurant of the neighborhood while protecting it from mice. (Torun’s footage between this hunter and his prey is especially impressive.) And then there is Psikopat–The Psycho–of Samatya; a jealous, overprotective lady who displays all the traits that put me off cats forever in the first place. And then the list goes on with the overtly social Deniz of Feriköy, the bossy Gamsız of Cihangir and the gentlemanly Duman of Nişantaşı. Torun doesn’t necessarily interview the people who care for these personalities, but rather, follows and observes them throughout their daily lives, building the cats’ profiles alongside the humans’. The result is a complex city founded on history and tradition and surrounded by goodwill, magnificence, and fragility. Life in Istanbul is tough: it can get lonely, frustrating, isolating and if you are a woman (like one of the subjects specifically notes), it can present you with additional obstacles. But Torun’s film insists upon finding those oases filled with good-hearted people and the free-willed cats with personalities larger than life. In Kedi, it may look like it’s the humans taking care of cats at first. But peek into it closer and you’ll see it might just be the other way around in the streets of Istanbul.

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Freelance writer and film critic based in New York. Bylines at Film Journal, Time Out NY, Movie Mezzanine, Indiewire, and others.