Sari the hustler, Duman the gentleman, Bengu the lover, Psikopat the psycho — they may sound like characters straight out of a gangster movie, but they are, in fact, some of the colorful felines profiled in “Kedi,” an endearing documentary about Istanbul’s street cats.
For centuries, if not millennia, street cats have roamed the city of Istanbul, where they are not merely tolerated for their rodent-controlling abilities but beloved by its human inhabitants, who feed them and form close attachments to them.
Foreign visitors have likewise been captivated by the ubiquitous presence of cats in Turkey’s largest city. Turks delighted when, on a state visit by Barack Obama to Turkey in 2009, the president famously bent down to pet one of the strays living in the Hagia Sophia church, a well-known landmark.
In “Kedi” (Turkish for “cat”), director Ceyda Torun profiles seven kitties across the city — each one a fixture in the community — and the residents who have developed relationships with them. The Turkish American filmmaker, who says Istanbul’s street cats helped her avoid loneliness as a child, does not identify her human subjects by name, although she does the cats.
There is, for example, Gamsiz the player, a black-and-white male living in the trendy Cihangir neighborhood who solicits food, affection and occasional shelter from a handful of area residents, including a cheerful baker who describes himself as Gamsiz’s “main human,” saying he has a running tab with all the nearby vets.
The human-feline interactions in the film can be quite tender, particularly when the interview subjects — who frequently ascribe human personality traits to their four-legged friends — reflect on what the creatures have brought to their lives, whether in the form of companionship or even a sense of purpose. One woman says that cooking 20 pounds of chicken a day for dozens of local cats has helped heal her emotional wounds.
The camerawork skillfully mimics a cat’s-eye view, with extended sequences filmed just over the animals’ shoulders using remote-controlled camera rigs that follow them as they saunter around, forage for meals and get into hissing matches. Interspersed throughout the film are also beautiful drone-captured aerial shots of Istanbul’s sprawling streets and the Bosporus waterway, which impart a strong sense of place.
Though pleasant to watch, Torun’s feature debut feels more like a meandering montage than a structured narrative, and it could easily be half as long. There is disappointingly little in the way of historical and cultural context to help explain the role of cats in Istanbul’s urban fabric. Nor does the filmmaker address much of the social and political upheaval that this megacity is currently undergoing, save for a few brief allusions to overdevelopment and the diminishing amount of green space.
“Kedi” isn’t for everyone’s taste. But for cat lovers who can’t get enough of on-screen felines, you could say it’s purr-fectly charming.
Unrated. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains one nongraphic scene involving an injured kitten. In Turkish with subtitles. 80 minutes.