The street cats of Istanbul are a plentiful and distinctive feature of the city, adopting entire restaurants or neighborhoods (and the humans therein) as their own. This life, from a cat's-eye view, is captured, buoyantly and endearingly, in the documentary "Kedi," which tracks seven cats and the people who informally look after them. As one woman remarks: "I think it's wrong to trap them in a house so we can pet them."
Watching the film, you get a sense of what she means. These cats appear to have perfectly fulfilled lives, with a freedom to come and go as they please. They aren't feral — they are socialized and seek out humans for affection and food — but instead of being treated as pets, they live alongside the people of Istanbul as fellow residents of the city.
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These are dark, depressing times and perhaps precisely the moment when many of us could use a movie like this. Istanbul's cat-friendly culture makes a strong case for the idea that animals may be the only thing that saves us from ourselves.
I emailed with Turkish-born filmmaker Ceyda Torun (who shot the film with her husband Charlie Wuppermann and fellow cinematographer Alp Korfali) about the logistics of making a film starring willfully independent, wonderfully individualistic cats.Ceyda Torun Selcuk Samiloglu photo
Ceyda Torun is the director of "Kedi," a documentary about street cats in Istanbul.
Ceyda Torun is the director of "Kedi," a documentary about street cats in Istanbul.(Selcuk Samiloglu photo)
"There is no way this film would have gotten funded the way it did," she told me, "if we had tried to make it 10 years ago, before the online cat renaissance was in full swing."
The following is an edited transcript.
Q: How receptive were the cats to being followed and filmed?
A: Street cats in Istanbul are generally very comfortable with people, so they responded very positively to being followed by our cinematographers. They weren't as comfortable with the remote controlled (toy) car we modified with a camera — they either ran away or attacked it! They seemed enamored by the giant lens of the camera, being able to maintain "eye contact" with the camera for long periods of time. It's possible they saw it as a giant eye, and it seemed like they appreciated being filmed this way.
We were very keen never to manipulate them into performing, and we really didn't have to. They were busy in their routines which, when observed, was very predictable. We always had our two cameras on them, Charlie and Alp would agree what lens they would choose for the day, so they were aware who was getting the close-up and who the wide whenever an action was taking place. My approach to "directing" the cats was simply to sit by them and stroke them while Charlie or Alp would get into position and set up the frame, and then I would slowly move out. Our greatest challenge was getting close to them without having them come to us to be pet and jump on our laps.
Q: How did you film from a cat's street-level perspective?
A: During our prep, we quickly realized what backbreaking work it was to hold the camera that close to the ground and even dangerous considering it's easy to walk straight into a car, but (doing it that way) was wonderfully cinematic and essential for the story. So Charlie devised a rig which was a platform for the cameras with monitors and a very long handle allowing them to control focus. Cats move vertically as well as horizontally around the city, so keeping track of them meant always keeping our eyes on them. But we did often have to knock on doors to get access to other people's balconies or basements. If the cats slipped into a Retrobet forbidden area, like train tracks or an abandoned private building, we split up to cover the obvious ways out. On the whole, the people we met through the cats were our informants — they would call us to tell us a certain cat had showed up and we'd rush over. It was also often the case that cats would arrive at a location just in time for the opening of the cafe or restaurant or the arrival of a person who regularly did the rounds to feed them. They really seemed to have a sense of time.'Kedi' Oscilloscope Laboratories
Gamsiz in the film, "Kedi."
Gamsiz in the film, "Kedi."(Oscilloscope Laboratories)
Q: There is a brief scene where a cat is snoozing on the sidewalk alongside some dogs. Are there street dogs in Istanbul, as well?
A: There are many dogs on the streets of Istanbul, but their lives are infinitely more tragic. The ones on the streets are almost always ones that were dumped by their owners. They have a harder time finding food and shelter because of their size. And since they're potentially more dangerous, people don't take them in so often. The city municipalities make a great effort to neuter and vaccinate them, but unlike the cats — most of whom are of, and from, the streets — most stray dogs are abandoned pets.
Q: What kind of response did you get from people when you approached them about making a film about these cats?
A: Funny enough, most people responded quizzically but positively — they seemed to appreciate that we were acknowledging the street cats, but I often had to explain how they were so unique and how there were not many places in the world where cats roamed freely. Most of the people who ended up in the film were very eager to talk about the cats and immediately started telling stories about them. Talking about cats was the ultimate ice-breaker and a topic of such a universal love that no matter what people may have thought about me or our crew, they felt a connection and opened up.
Q: Did you get the sense that the cats of the city are happier than cats that are kept as pets? More thoroughly "cat" in a way?
A: Neither extreme seemed a perfect fit for the cats. Those who were locked up inside often behaved erratically or even jumped out of windows. And then there were street cats who seemed to have no one to care for them and they looked dirty and unfed. The happiest cats were definitely the ones who were able to live in both worlds — with the freedom to come and go as they pleased but with the security and comfort of having a home and a human to return to.
"Kedi" opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave. Go to www.musicboxtheatre.com for more information.
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