Kedi is a documentary about the street cats of Istanbul and the humans who love them. Some portion of those who began reading this review stopped somewhere around the end of the previous sentence and immediately purchased their ticket to see the movie. This review is not for them. It’s for the rest of you, who are still reading, who require at least non-zero convincing to see an eighty-minute film about cats. I feel you; I am one of you; I am not a cat person. So I feel more-than-credible enough when I say that, yes, you should see Kedi.
Istanbul is many cliched things; the cultural capital of Turkey, the bridge between Europe and Asia, East and West, a city of history, tremendous sights, and culinary delights. It is also one of the many cities on Earth that has a large population of feral felis catus. There is a fascinating documentary to be made about how that happened, and why; the biological and sociological underpinnings of animal domestication, and the ways it interacted with political/economic changes across the globe. Kedi is not that movie.
Instead, Kedi is humbly, wiser, something much more focused and straightforward. It episodically tells the stories of individual cats of Istanbul through the eyes of the people who’ve bonded in some way with them. Young and old, male and female, artists and fishermen and shopkeepers, everyone seems to have their own reasons for tolerating and eventually encouraging the specific cats who’ve inserted themselves into their lives’ patterns, and who inevitably find a space in that human’s heart as well. Any temptations to read too much more into the film is carefully and systematically attenuated by Kedi’s resolute commitment to its subject. Kedi is very much about what it is about.
Kedi works because it’s about it so darn well. It comes close to doing it too well, punctuating its episodes with montages of cat life in Istanbul set to the kind of at-once-twee-and-ethereal music that has become endemic to the highly-produced observational documentary as of late (call it “Babies syndrome”). But Kedi avoids relying on that as a crutch, and instead relies on something much stronger—dedication to craft and thoughtfully modest creativity. This is strongest in the film’s use of street-level Steadicam; the mind boggles at how much effort and patience must have gone into acclimating the film’s many feline protagonists to the filmmakers sufficiently to allow them to follow them through streets and alleys into their various nooks, crannies, and hideaways. It pays off; the cats are genuine stars, whether they’re prowling the streets, nuzzling a human, feeding their kittens, or just sitting with poise, begging to be photographed.
Kedi is among the most soothing movies I’ve ever seen. This is a rare descriptor for a movie, and with good reason; we don’t usually go to movies to be soothed. That’s what hot chamomile tea, a good book, and Julianna Barwick’s Nepenthe is for. But there is a niche for films whose primary effect on the viewer is to instill a sense of peace, relaxation, tranquility. The French film Winged Migration, for example, is essentially a high-end spa treatment disguised as a documentary about birds (and hey it’s on YouTube). Kedi isn’t in quite that category; it’s too engaged with people, and too lively in bits (especially those set to delightful decades-old Turkish pop songs) to be a purely meditative experience. But the feeling one leaves with after watching Kedi is nevertheless a deeply calming one. It’s the kind of film that, even recently, might have been dismissed as a trifle. Right now, however, Kedi feels like it meets a difficult-to-articulate but genuinely-deep need. Perhaps it’s a sense of perspective; perhaps it’s the seeking of refuge in tumultuous times and places; maybe it’s just something genuinely able to keep our phones in our pockets for more than an hour. Whatever it is, Kedi has it and we all need it, probably more than we realize.