with Matthew Yang, intern at Asian Film Archive.
I must admit – I have never been a cat person. Never have and never will be.
Almost like binary, there are often two distinct types of people: the dog lover or the cat lover. I identify myself as the former, a lover of all things that bark, but to be more specific, strictly pugs. Sure, cats can be adorable too. But to me, cats are like bad lovers; they are unreliable. They often come off as unpredictable, ungrateful, and disloyal. Unlike their canine counterparts, they do whatever they want; coming and going as they please. The only time you will see them would probably be chowtime. However, after they have had their fill, they are off again – without notice nor trace. Whereas dogs, they are loyal. They stick around in both good times and bad, plus, they are always up for a warm cuddle and a nice belly rub. Hence, that’s why I find cats to be an unreliable source for emotional comfort. They are there when they need you but never there when you need them. While feline lovers might disagree, I would like to add that cats are rarely known to save the lives of others.
However, I would be dishonest if I said Ceyda Torun’s Kedi, did not move a part of me. Putting my biasness aside, whether you are dog or cat lover, Kedi (which means “cat” in Turkish) is a film that is guaranteed to warm the coldest of hearts. Its endless sequence of entrancing close-ups of cute kitties will certainly draw the “aww” out of you.
Packaged in the form of a documentary, Kedi is Torun’s love letter to her birth city, Istanbul, as well as to its free-roaming street cats. Through Charlie Wupperman’s and Alp Korfali’s (the film’s cinematographers) exquisite gliding camera, we are immediately introduced to the vast city through the eyes of the four-legged felids. We are brought to a cat’s-eye view of the streets, outdoor markets, cafes, and the city’s nooks and crannies, where seven felines spend much of their time.
Audiences are introduced to characters and personalities of all sorts, most memorably, “Duman” (which means Smokey in Turkish), a grey coated cat with jade-green eyes who is the resident cat of an upscale delicatessen in downtown Istanbul. As a staff member describes, “[Duman] never harasses our customers for food…He’s a cat with manners”. A “cultured” cat by manner and taste, Duman would instead tactfully paw against the shop’s window to signal for its daily serving of smoked turkey and manchego. Duman clearly demonstrates how one can beg with style – you have to play it cool to get what you want. Another staff confirms this, “Beneath that aristocratic appearance, there is still a street kid”.
Not all focus is on the cats. As interesting as the cats are, the LA-based Torun also introduces the charming caregivers to these cats. Accompanied by Kira Fontana’s upbeat selection of Turkish pop music, Kedi chronicles the testimonials of the cat-obsessed Istanbulites, revealing the vibrant collective portraits of the seven felines. The residents’ affectionate testimonials capture the bond between them and their four-legged compatriots, helping to define the essential make-up of the city. This perhaps contributes to Istanbul’s charm that we are all familiar with today. A touching scene of a man cradling a lifeless kitten in his arms is an epitome to this. As if carrying his own child, the man tenderly clasps the lifeless kitten in his thick sinewy hands. A result of a skirmish with another cat (probably a much bigger and older one), the man laments as the kitten remains comatose, “My, what am I going to do with you…you poor, poor thing”. Still at a loss, he draws the kitten closer to him to listen for any signs of life. With nothing but silence, he boards a taxi to take it to the nearest vet, hoping for his silent prayers to be answered.
While Torun does not attempt to answer philosophical questions, she does however shed some light on why we bear such great affection for these felines. One interviewee, a local fish monger, puts it brilliantly, “The love of animals is a different kind of love. Those who can’t love animals, can’t love people”. For most, cats are valued as a practical means to exterminate vermin. One of the featured cats earns its keep at a beachside al fresco restaurant by exterminating rodents. The grateful owners of the restaurant consider this as “doing justice to one’s love”. However, for others, cats provide a kind of nourishment for the mind, body, and spirit. An interviewee explains early in the film that cats were known to be kept on ships by sailors to absorb excessive energy. While prayer beads can do the same for him (as he confidently proclaims), it seems having a feral kitten would do it better. One woman shares how the dignified posture of cats serves as a reminder to her to express one’s femininity. She considers this as an important engagement for Turkish women since all of them live in a place where it is “difficult to be a woman”. Another woman takes it upon herself to cook twenty pounds of chicken a day to feed the strays of Istanbul as she recounts how she could heal her emotional wounds after healing those of the cats. The late John Berger ties it up nicely in his essay “Why We Look At Animals”. He writes, “With their parallel lives, animals offer man a companionship which is different from any offered by human exchange. Different because it is a companionship offered to the loneliness of man as a species”.
Things do not remain rosy for these cats as uncertainties to their future begin to surface later in the film. The spectacular aerial drone shots that sweep across the city surveys Istanbul’s rapid modernization. This alludes to the growing loss of natural orchards and greens that these cats slink on. As older buildings make way for new ones, an elderly store hand expresses his concern for the cats, “We’re more worried about what’ll happen to the cats than what might happen to us”. “They can’t fly away like birds. It’s our responsibility to take care of them as best as we can”. Despite the residents’ continued commitment, a huge question mark looms over the cats’ fates as both the cats and their devotees remain powerless to the forces of urbanization. However, I am quite certain they will not suffer the same fate as the 24 free-ranging chickens that were recently culled for their noise-related ‘nuisance’. Certainly not soon, at least.
The situation in Singapore is perhaps the result of the physical marginalisation that Berger mentions in his essay. The scant living space that the chickens were limited to further reduced them into units for consumption. The reduction of the animal as he describes, is the material process where animals – domesticated animals in particular – become creatures to our way of life. This has rendered some species to the brink of extinction such as the native red junglefowl which have been said to originate from Pulau Ubin, an island located northeast of Singapore. If there is anything that Singaporeans can draw from Torun’s quirky piece, it is that everything is beautiful if you choose to look at it with love. By doing so, we will realise that animals are not too different from us, inspiring us to solve their problems as our own.
The animals could be gone sooner than we know it, leaving them to exist only in our imaginations.
Kedi made its Asian premiere in Singapore on 11th January 2017. It was part of Alt Screen: Of Animalia, presented by the Asian Film Archive and the National Library Board, Singapore, an ongoing programme that explores the complex interactions between animals and humans.