Film

Kedi Porn

Ceyda Torun, Kedi, 2016, HD video, color, sound, 79 minutes. Bengü.

If Make America Kittens—the Chrome extension that instantly replaces Donald Trump’s face with images of adorable cats—no longer blots out the horror, try Kedi, Ceyda Torun’s celebration of the felines of Istanbul and the humans who nurture them, or at the very least appreciate living among them. Never cute, this documentary about the interspecies bonding that defines daily life in Istanbul’s old town is as resourceful, agile, and scruffily seductive as its seven feline stars and supporting cast of hundreds.

Torun, who grew up in the city, says that she would not be the person she is today were it not for the street cats who were her childhood friends. I feel similarly about seeing Bambi (1942) at an impressionable age, although Disney’s nightmare vision of hunters and forest fires left me as bereft and terrified as the animals on the screen, despite the happy ending. (David Cronenberg named Bambi the most influential film in his life.) When I moved to SoHo in the early 1970s, there were more cats than humans residing in the industrial neighborhood, lounging against storefront windows, slipping through holes in loading platforms to sleep in warm basements, or huddling under cars in parking lots. For eight years, I fed cats all along Wooster Street, took in nine of them, and found homes for others, and I still weep for the three whose lives I probably made worse in trying to rescue them. Then there was gentrification, and seemingly overnight, the cats and most of their caregivers were gone.

To reassure anyone who right now can’t deal with any more pain, nothing bad happens to any of Kedi’s feline or human creatures. (Well, there’s one tiny comatose kitten.) It’s not that their future is assured. Implicit in the aerial shots that wordlessly depict the extent of the city’s modernization is the threat of the loss of habitat. Who knows how much of the picturesque Bosporus Harbor neighborhood, with its sprawling outdoor markets and centuries-old houses whose windows are always open and roofs easy to scale, still exists. Throughout the film, people worry about what will happen to the cats when they lose their homes and shops. Sitting next to a box of newborn kittens and a pair of adult cats curled up together, a woman, who has heard that her shop will soon be razed to make way for a road, confides that she is more concerned about the cats than herself and her neighbors. “If we have to leave, they’ll have no one.”

In Kedi, Torun captures what remains of her childhood paradise, creating a remembrance of and a model for a generous and humane way of life. (The film also must have been shot before the 2016 failed military coup.) Charlie Wuppermann’s alert, sinuous handheld camerawork is a major asset, as is the subtly emotive score by Kira Fontana. But if Kedi never feels like a memory piece, it is because cats always live in the present moment. That’s why one man says they are better for him than his worry beads: “A cat curled up at your feet is life smiling at you.”

What these Istanbulites value in the cats that adopt them is their independence. And that they have not been civilized of their instincts. Alley Cat Allies and other spay/neuter/release groups will have problems with Kedi. The Istanbul cats are doted on for being good mothers and fierce, territorial boyfriends. The same people who cook up twenty pounds of chicken a day and distribute kibble and water to outdoor feeding stations also run tabs at every neighborhood vet. But spay/neuter is never mentioned, although a woman notes that cats lose their catlike nature when they live inside. It’s a compromise, imposed by humans on cats, that she seems to know firsthand.

Few of those who locate the soul of the city in its cat population would endorse such a compromise. As much as the cat guardians of Istanbul anthropomorphize the felines they nurture, they are in love with their otherness. “Being friends with cats is what I imagine it would be like with aliens,” says the proprietor of a lovely clothing store where cats wander in and out more often than customers. “You open a different line of communication.”

Kedi plays through February 16 at the Metrograph in New York.

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