Bright Lights, Big Kitties / by Samuel B. Prime

In the days of the Ottoman Empire, the development of Istanbul's sewer system brought with it hoards of vermin. The solution: the sworn enemy of the filthy, disease-ridden rat, that most aloof and calculating of hunters: the cat. Ever since, the ubiquitous presence of hundreds of thousands of free-roaming and free-spirited felines has been an indivisible part of Istanbul's identity. To know the city, to love the city, and to be part of its metropolis is to be charmed by the many four-legged interlopers who define it - and who shape the lives of others - with every purr. Such is the subject of Ceyda Torun's first documentary feature, KEDI (2016), a nonfiction film that would (much to its credit) titillate the late Chris Marker - whose love of cats is well-documented and whose LE JOLI MAI (1963) it loosely, though perhaps incidentally, emulates - and that ought to seen far and wide by as many folks as possible.

While the cats obviously cannot speak for themselves, the humans whose lives they inform speak on their behalf. Although it is clear that most of the humans in question feel a certain sense of ownership and affection towards the cats in question, it is generally accepted that the cats of Istanbul come and go as they please. To be in one's presence is a kind of welcome grace, but also - in most cases - a mutually beneficial relationship. The humans of the film provide food, shelter, and emergency medical care and the cats provide company, act as exterminators, or in the case of a cat known as Psikopat ("the neighborhood psychopath") protect the local turf by keeping the streets free from unwelcome riff-raff and mangy alley cats. Even dogs know better than to mess with Psikopat. When it comes to the cats of Istanbul, their undisputed importance means vastly different things to its denizens.

In spite of the stereotype of the "crazy cat lady," there are characters in this film who adopt and/or care for cats as a means of self-healing. One woman confesses to having nearly sixty cats living in her home and that her therapist tells her that taking care of the cats is an attempt to make up for her own shortcomings. While not in denial, there is a certain melancholy to someone who helps others and is unable (or perhaps unwilling) to help themselves. Another man confesses to a nervous breakdown and that caring for packs of the city's cats has imbued his life with purpose and utterly refreshed his everyday experience with a previously unknown serenity. Altogether other anecdotes honor cats with singular wisdom - they are uniformly referred to as good judges of character - or even supernatural properties; a man relates a tale of how, following a personal disappointment, a mysterious cat led him to a wallet filled with money. A film filled from top to bottom with broad opinions about animal companions and specific, savory anecdotes about the approximately ten central cat characters who represent the larger whole, KEDI seems to settle on one essential truth as its thesis: to bestow love upon an animal is a remarkably human act and to do so generously means you are capable of a deeper love, even a romance, from one human being to another. Through the eyes of a cat, we see ourselves as all the more human.

KEDI opens theatrically in NYC on February 10th and the greater LA area on Friday, February 17th, 2017. 

- Samuel B. Prime

Founder, LA Ciné Salon