A documentary about cats need not also be a trenchant exposé of the injustices of the world just beyond their whiskers. But Kedi (Turkish for “cat”), a 2016 film recently released in North America that profiles some of the street cats of Istanbul and the citizens who care for them, seems to shy away from the increasingly extreme forces shaping the Turkish metropolis. Instead, it focuses on the sweet, enigmatic, and sometimes violent behaviors of the city’s cats and the compassionate residents who provide for them. Often too-brief profiles of specific cats and their caretakers are interspersed with plentiful shots of feline Istanbulites pawing at produce in bazaars, strutting down picturesque cobblestone streets, climbing across patchworks of sun-splashed rooftops, or posing beside the Bosphorus at dusk. The city serves largely as romantic décor, coming across as more of a purring lap cat than a scrappy tomcat.
Director Ceyda Torun highlights a cast of a half-dozen cats and their caretakers, who range from artists and fishermen to bazaar stall-keepers and factory workers. Their endearing reflections offer an array of diagnoses of the relationship between humans and felines: being around cats is therapeutic; they embody certain qualities people increasingly lack; they absorb negative energy in times of stress; “they’re just like people,” as several subjects put it. Others suggest explanations for cats’ prevalence in Istanbul, including their presumed origins as pest control agents on the boats that began frequenting the city’s port centuries ago. Many of Torun’s human subjects — from the proprietor of a tiny dumpling stand who says that “whatever is in our tip jar goes to the cats” to the workers at an upscale restaurant who feed their resident feline smoked turkey with slices of manchego — describe taking care of street cats as a kind of civic duty.
Occasionally, political issues do enter the film’s fuzzy world. One interviewee, an artist, comments on cats’ freedom to publicly embody femininity, while she must conceal hers. In another scene, a feisty feline stretches and yawns in front of a street art stencil criticizing President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Vendors at a neighborhood produce market complain that the proliferation of high-rise developments in the area is encroaching on space for the city’s strays, casting gentrification as a symptom of a growing indifference to the plights of others, no matter the species. These brief evocations of problems facing the city and Turkey in general underline just how apolitical the rest of the film is.
By and large, Kedi offers up a postcard image of Istanbul and its inhabitants, both human and feline; one almost expects to see the seal of the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism scroll past during the closing credits. Again, every documentary need not be an indictment of an authoritarian government or a record of a humanitarian crisis. But it doesn’t seem unjustly catty to expect that a film so much about a city recently rocked by protests, mass demonstrations, systemic crackdowns on basic human rights, and a failed coup d’état should reflect rather than ignore those realities — and their effects on residents of all castes and coats.