Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 03/03/17 14:28:11

"Kitties in the city."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Toward the end of "Kedi", the viewer might start to see director Ceyda Torun making a broader point about modern cities in general and Istanbul in particular, and how room for the organic rather than planned and parceled-out is precious but vanishing. That may not be her intention, of course; though the human subjects of the film certainly discuss things like that at times, it’s always in a way that relates to their feline friends. If one doesn’t see it that way, it’s fine; for all I know, she was simply trying to make a sweet little documentary about the stray cats of the city, and it is thoroughly adorable even if one doesn’t buy into it having a second layer.

Istanbul, the audience is told, is home to thousands of street cats; they originally came on trade ships from Norway and came to be considered useful when rats started infesting one of the world’s first sewage systems. Today, housecats are not uncommon but many more cats live on their own, domesticated to some extent but far from the property of any particular human, and Torun follows a number of them around the city, getting a look at their daily lives and hearing stories about the people they interact with.

Torun mostly tells the cats’ stories first, introducing them before the humans in their lives appear, giving the audience a chance to observe them a bit before the narration and interviews start being played directly off clips which highlight the point being made or certainly direct someone watching to recognize specific human traits in the cat’s expression. For the most part, these interviews are ordinary people, many of whom live and work around the waterways, although it likely amused some in Turkey that cartoonist Bülent Üstün was among those interviewed (his comics about Shero, a far more profane and horny orange fat cat than Garfield, were recently made into the animated feature Bad Cat). As the film goes on, the interviews tend to focus a bit less on the cats’ independence and a bit more on how their presence is good for the person in question, with the effort and expense some put into feeding these strays a bit eyebrow-raising.

That’s about when some other interviewees talk about how some of the development is crowding the cats out, pointing out that the skyscrapers springing up around Istanbul create swaths of the city where street cats have no place; their glass faces can’t be climbed, the windows don’t open, and there’s not even any dirt around for the cats to bury their business in. It’s not hard to see the cats being pushed away as a metaphor for a city that is at once more anonymous and more tightly controlled, with every inch of those spaces belonging to someone impersonal as opposed to the community. In the other neighborhoods - especially around the docks, where small shacks and working people hug the water - people take stray cats to the vet, make room when one decides she will nest and have her kittens there, or happily trade table scraps for help in keeping the mouse population down. The cats, in these spots, are their neighbors, and though they cannot create a formal compact, the informal one works well and solidifies the sense of community that all who live there feel.

Or, perhaps, maybe it’s just a movie where a filmmaker can capture the antics of cats who have a bunch of personality; its cute kitty game is pretty strong. The cats Torun introduces the audience to may not quite be so independent as they might think of themselves - they’ll meow for food and happily make use of the boxes people set up for them - but they quickly identify themselves as distinct individuals who don’t simply serve as reflections of the two-legged folks they hang around with. There are aggressive toms, protective mothers, and adorable kittens, all of whom have a great moment or three. Torun finds good vignettes for each of them, and some of these bits are deceptively well-captured; it’s probably no simple thing for a relatively small production to film a cat stealing some food and taking it a couple blocks to her kittens (or, I suppose, to cut multiple instances together fairly seamlessly).

Presenting about nine lives of Istanbul’s cats doesn’t take that long, and Torum doesn’t necessarily dig too deep into the situation to do so, so even when "Kedi" is an examination of the modern city as opposed to just a super-sized cat video, it’s a fairly simple film. But it’s a charming one, clear-eyed and intelligent, and eighty minutes is just enough to get a warm, fuzzy feeling while also thinking about the way we share our communities.

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