Internet culture has inundated us with cats. Cute cats, dumb cats, angry cats, cats with thousands of followers on Instagram and millions of views on YouTube. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats is back on Broadway. In 2012, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis launched a Cat Video Film Festival. It has been an astonishing decade for feline representation.
If the above paragraph sounds hackneyed and ridiculous, that’s because it is. Announcing the arrival of an Internet trend always has an air of mustiness about it, especially after the fact. The Walker canceled their Cat Video festival in 2016. They donated the materials to the Minnesota Historical Society, as dooming a gesture as one could imagine. The Golden Age of the Cat Video is over.
This is, of course, a good thing. The #1 viewed cat video on YouTube is a 10-minute compilation that underlines how dull most of them are. The camera sits, waiting for the cat to do something silly. The tension resolves when the cat performs, then it’s over. They’re quite rudimentary, the Edison Kinetoscope films to Vine’s Méliès magic.
And now the boom has busted. Is the cat video in crisis? Perhaps. But that’s why we’re lucky to have received the first truly delightful documentary of 2017, Ceyda Torun’s Kedi. Her approach is languorous, following the stray cats of Istanbul as they meander the centuries-old alleyways and forage the busy streets. There are moments of humor, of course, but there’s no instant gratification. Its 80 minutes unfold as leisurely as the afternoon of a cat with no pressing engagements.
After all, YouTube’s kittens are but a drop in the bucket. Cats have been culturally prominent for millennia, alternately revered and detested. They’ve been in Istanbul at least since the Byzantine Emperors’ Norwegian mercenaries docked on the Bosporus with their fluffy forest cats, as one helpful human explains to Torun. They’ve been an essential part of city life for as long as anyone can remember.
Kedi, therefore, is a hearkening back to an older way of representing cats. These animals are uniquely intelligent, metaphorically significant beings whose cultural import should go well beyond comedy. Torun treats her subject with nuance, respect and a little bit of mysticism.
For one thing, there are a great many close-ups of furry faces. We are invited to peer into their eyes and to decry their motivations. Torun and cinematographer Charlie Wuppermann keep things low to the ground, replicating the physical perspective of the cats as closely as possible. They follow them down tunnels and into back rooms, up walls and through windows. All the while, the very space of the frame is fitted to the relative size of a cat.
Each one, however, is different. Sari is a determined mother, Gamsiz a fighter and a bit of a player. Psikopat lives up to her name. The humans who Torun talks to along the way all testify to the variety of personalities. These cats are as unique as we are, even without the use of language.
This simple observation is Kedi’s thesis. Torun moves from cat to cat, carefully identifying and observing each of their habits and moods. Whether it be the mother who has turned a metal shop into her personal fortress, the fish restaurant’s champion mouser or the well-named psychopath, each leaves its own unique impression. And not one of them is defined by the abrupt comedy of a single gag.
There is also a grander, more spiritual dimension, underlined by composer Kira Fontana’s celestial original score. Her minimalist compositions cast a delicate spirituality over the film, creating an atmosphere in which the magical qualities of cats seem entirely natural.
As one human explains, “Cats are aware of the existence of God. Dogs aren’t, which is why they think humans are God. Cats know better.” Torun’s approach lends itself to the contemplation of feline souls, glinting in the eyes of her subjects. A sense of near-divinity is taken on by the most elegant close-ups, lending some truth to one local’s assertion cats are carriers of positive energy. These creatures “remind us that we are alive,” and it seems like quite the understatement.