Now playing at the Old Greenbelt Theatre
Few people are neutral about cats. Abraham Lincoln loved them; Adolf Hitler hated them. About 1,000 years ago, the prophet Mohammed cut the sleeves off his robe rather than disturb his napping feline companion. About every three months, a contentious thread about feral cats erupts on the Greenbelters Facebook page. Cats are likely to inspire strong emotions, although they seem to regard humans with studied indifference. Yet various Internet articles claim that cats surpass dogs in popularity in the United States, probably because cats are the ideal pet for busy urban professionals living in tiny apartments. A Washington Post piece from 2014 even suggests there are cat countries and dog countries. In India, dogs outnumber cats 10-to-1, but in Switzerland, Austria, and Turkey, cats outnumber dogs 3-to-1.
Three cats to every dog, seems a low estimate for Istanbul, where hundreds of thousands of cats freely roam the city streets and interact—always on their own terms—with humans. Turkish filmmaker Ceyda Torun’s documentary Kedi follows seven of these street cats and examines their relationships with their human neighbors.
The human companions feed and support these street cats, respect the cats’ independence, and admire their natural grace. One woman praises the cats for their instinctive knowledge of how to be effortlessly feminine and sensual. Another woman cooks 20 pounds of chicken a day to feed her feline friends. One man even claimed he survived a severe nervous breakdown, when he started caring for the neighborhood cats, and another sees the presence of cats in his life as a gift from God.
Of course, it helps that the cats live in an ancient city with a mild subtropical climate, a thriving fishing industry, and a leisurely café culture, where people regularly shop in open-air markets and spend lots of time outdoors. I can’t imagine street cats faring so well in December in downtown Chicago, Cleveland, or Washington DC. And even in Istanbul, the life of a street cat is not so easy. More than one resident has rescued a box of kittens that someone else dumped on the street, and many of the films’ cat protectors have running tabs with the local veterinarian.
Kedi suggests that this seamless coexistence of street cats and humans may soon come to an end as Istanbul cedes more and more undeveloped land each year to accommodate widened streets, high-end apartment towers, and gleaming office buildings. Another implicit message is that the modernization that will make Istanbul less hospital for street cats will also make the city a less accommodating place for humans. A city without cats is a city that has lost its soul.
I don’t normally rate documentaries, but I highly recommend Kedi as catnip for cat lovers and a delight for travel buffs. I’ve added Istanbul to my travel bucket list, and long to visit its cat-friendly neighborhoods, cafés, and open-air markets. If you see this film, be sure to stay for the credits, which feature charming drawings of the cats in the film.
Check the theater website for information about movie times and online tickets. Kedi accessibility: because Kedi is a foreign-language film, the dialogue is subtitled for all showings.