How the Cats of Istanbul Became Movie Stars

“A cat meowing at your feet, looking up at you is life smiling at you,” says a man toward the end of Ceyda Torun’s new documentary Kedi. And who could argue? The doc examines the communal raising of street cats through seven very different feline subjects, among them Sarı, a mother who spends her days hustling for food to feed her kittens; Duman a “gentleman” who routinely waits patiently outside of one posh restaurant for his meal of smoked meat and cheese; and Deniz, who lives at an organic market. Kedi, which was largely shot in April and May 2014, is a somewhat philosophical meditation on the high esteem in which cats are held in Islam, the ever-shifting landscape of Istanbul (where the film’s director grew up), and the tender bonds between humans and cats. Above all else, it’s incredibly heartening to spend 80 minutes watching people speak so lovingly about animals.


I spoke with Ceyda Torun about her film and all things cats this week while she was in New York to promote her movie. An edited and condensed transcript of our conversation appears below.

Cats take up a lot of space in our culture, but it’s mostly via cute videos on YouTube. Were you aiming to add to the conversation with this movie?


I’m grateful for the internet cat craze, because we wouldn’t have gotten this film funded if it weren’t for that. I’m glad that cats are living a renaissance of sorts. But it is very limited and it doesn’t portray the whole depth of cats in 30 seconds. With the film I was hoping to bring the idea across that all cats—and I think it can be said of all animals in general—are individuals. You can’t generalize them and say, “All cats are like this.” I also wanted to bring the idea across that the benefits of having a relationship with a cat, because they’re almost on equal terms with us, force us to be present and be more introspective about ourselves, our lives, and our place in the world.

Was this movie always conceived as the exploration that it is?

No. It had a lot of incarnations. Originally, I was like, “Let’s make a nature documentary like March of the Penguins, but in Istanbul and with cats.” But we did not have the resources of BBC and NatGeo. We had to be really practical about it, so we went out a year before we did the filming to do a research shoot. We would just talk to random people on the street: “What’s the story with this cat?” When we came back to L.A., which is where we live—I’m saying we because my cinematographer and co-producer [Charlie Wuppermann] is also my husband—we looked at our footage and this beautiful commentary by all these people about the relationships that they were having with these cats and in the end we were like, “It has to be this sort of semi-philosophical, cat’s perspective of Istanbul where the people and the city are as much of a character.”

It’s really heartening to spend an hour and a half with people who love animals as much as your human subjects. What’s your stance on anthropomorphism and the debates that surround it?

I think it’s inevitable and impossible not to [anthropomorphize]. There’s a guy who talks about [one of the cat subjects] Psikopat [“Psychopath”] being a jealous housewife. Meanwhile, I’m watching her and I’m thinking she’s just territorial. He is projecting his ideas of how women are [on this cat]. And then he places such an emphasis on her freedom, and later I find out through further discussions with him that he had been in and out of jail. The idea that cats are mirrors to ourselves I wanted to show by giving examples of how we do project our own things onto these cats. But I think there are a lot of similarities between cats and people. I think that’s a reason why we like them so much or why we think of them on equal terms, more than other animals in our lives. I started reverse anthropomorphizing and giving cat-like characteristics to people in my mind.


I tend to think of anthropomorphizing as mostly a good thing since we don’t have the tools to truly understand animals. The fact that we are ascribing any importance on the emotional lives of these animals is a sign of human progress and a sign of compassion. We’re not going to get it 100 percent right anyway; we just don’t have their umwelt.


We interviewed a bunch of professors and experts, which didn’t make it into the film although some of their voice overs did. One professor actually brought up this idea that the fact that we’re trying to interpret them in our own way is the core of ethical behavior. Even if we don’t really get them, even if we’re totally wrong about what we’re interpreting, the effort in itself is the basis of ethical behavior. It’s so amazing how much introspective insight can come out of an interaction with an animal. It’s beautiful.

Were there any cats that didn’t live up to the reputations that their human caretakers set forth?


For sure. But there were more cases of people telling us remarkable things about a cat that just didn’t happen. We had leads to 35 cats when we started filming because we did a bunch of research on the ground and everything. We started making our rounds and there were plenty of cases where we kept on missing that cat because we were somewhere else or the cat never showed up or the cat showed up and just slept. In the end, we filmed about 19 cats out of the 35 and of the 19, 7 were complete stories. That’s the other thing—the day in the life doesn’t necessarily get resolved with every cat you start filming. It was a bit of challenge. A lot of darlings didn’t make it or will make it into DVD extras, which makes me happy.

Was working with them difficult, just in terms of capturing the cats on film?

It was remarkably easier than I thought. They are very used to people. Once we figured out which cameras and what method was the easiest for them to handle—because we had remote controlled cars we took a part and made into camera rigs so we could follow them around but they didn’t really like that too much—the majority of shots came from the two 5D [cameras] that we had. It would have been impossible to capture this continuous footage without multiple cameras.


They didn’t mind [being filmed] at all. There were some instances of slightly more feral cats who would leave the moment they saw us and we had no chance of ever catching them. Most of the time, the cats you see are used to people and because they’re used to people, they were used to the idea of this camera following them. I did come to the conclusion that they like being observed. This is a thing that these famous writers who have cats refer to. They’re not there for any particular reason. I love dogs, I love all animals, I make no discrimination, except for mosquitos. A cat will sit here and just look at you. He’s not asking to be fed, he’s not asking to be pet, he’s not asking, “Let’s go out and play ball.” He’s just looking at you. It’s such a human condition to want to be recognized and validated. We’re always struggling with our own existence and God, and there’s this one creature in our lives who just does that for us, who just says, “I see you.”


Did you have to alter your technique or approach for the cats’ different dispositions?

I tried not to interfere with them too much. There’s a “psst psst” sound that you make in Turkey to get cats to come to you. We would try to lead them, or I would sit and pet a cat and [cinematographer Charlie Wuppermann] would get into position and I’d slowly walk away. We’d get a shot of the cat sitting on the staircase or something. Often, they wanted to go to the camera. They wanted to sit on the lap of the cinematographers, or mine. We have a lot of outtakes where we’d have the perfect angle and the cat would come and start rubbing on the camera. Some cats really wanted to interact more with us and the camera, which was a little bit harder. Others were perfectly happy doing their own thing and we just followed them as best we could. I was pregnant at the time and I had a lot of pregnant cats come up and want to hang out. It was like, “This is crazy, what is happening?” It was super nice.


Was there any criteria for what would make a good cat subject?

Our researcher was like, “Let’s go find cats on boats, cats in a mosque, cats in a Turkish bath...” We approached both by location and by visual. What could we find that was iconic visually? But in the end, it was very much a case of what they revealed to us. We just kept going back to the same 19 cats over and over over the course of two and a half months.


That you had to rely on what they revealed to you is so... cats. This may be very American of me, but when I was watching this I couldn’t help but wonder where the tragedy was. These cats are on the street and your movie is nice and gentle. It seems like you could have made a movie just as long about cats dying left and right. Did you get a sense of the peril they face, or does the communal cat raising of Istanbul create a cat utopia?

You’re right to bring that up. It was a very difficult decision to make. Even though I’d say if you look at the proportions, they have a much better life than not, though in Istanbul, it’s not exactly a utopia. It’s not completely free of disease. That’s why I made sure to include a mini segment about death and the bad things that could happen to them—the kitten getting attacked by an older male, the lady who feeds the cats talking about cancer—but I wanted to without shoving it in people’s faces, make the suggestion that whatever misery they may have in their lives is no different than the misery we have as human beings. In the same way that I don’t pity a person who may choose to live differently in their life, I don’t believe it’s sad because these cats don’t have homes. I believe they’re meant to be living this kind of life. I think that as sad as it is that cats can’t be safe on the streets, it’s sad that kids can’t be safe on the streets playing.


I pursued it during the filming, I interviewed people about what has changed in Istanbul for them, what they think is good and bad, but in the end it would have changed the overall emotion of the film, and it wouldn’t have been sufficient to just briefly mention it. Same with the political troubles Istanbul is going through, both during the time of filming and now, it was a very conscious decision not to include those things, mostly because cats in Istanbul is a timeless thing and I wanted people to feel that. And it was an act of defiance to say, “I’m not going to give these horrible politicians and the things they do any mention and any immortality by featuring them in this film. They don’t deserve it, they don’t belong in it, and everyone’s already aware.”


Have you kept up with any of the cats?

Yes, I kept up with all of the people. Whenever I’m back I try to go. Although last time when I was in Istanbul it was four days after the coup attempt, so it was a little bit miserable. A lot of the shops were closed and it wasn’t quite safe for me to just go explore stuff. Such ridiculousness. But some of the cats have passed on. Some were already quite old when we were filming them. Half of them are exactly where they were doing exactly the same thing.


The last one you featured, Duman, the “gentleman” cat was my favorite. Is he still around?

(Shakes head) He got run over.

I guess that speaks to the argument about letting cats live outdoors versus the way your subjects live. It’s clear that many cats really want to be able to go outside, really find peace in their agency to come and go, and yet it’s so dangerous, especially where I live in Brooklyn. I’d never let my cat out on purpose.


It’s not the idea of, “Let’s release all of our house cats and see what happens.” Some of them will definitely not survive. I’m hoping the bigger conversation we can start to have is: How do we accommodate animals in our cities. Let’s face it, we’re not shrinking in population. How do we make sure all of nature is incorporated into that? Cats are a great starting point for that discussion. In Istanbul, too, people get run over. Kids get run over. It’s not simply because the cat got outside that he got run over. If we care about that, we also need to care about everything and everyone in it. It’s the same beast that’s harming all of us. If cats are dying of illnesses that are a result of overpopulation, the same thing can be said of us.

Some Pig. Terrific. Radiant. Humble.

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I am a firm believer in indoor cats, to keep them safe and healthy. However, one of our cats ballooned up to a lazy fatapotomos. He was over 25 pounds, 24 inches in circumference, and couldn’t even clean himself. Imagine me wiping the shit off the butt of a squirming fat cat, if you will. We tried limiting his food, but he didn’t lose much weight.

He showed some interest in going outside. We thought it couldn’t hurt because he was too fat to go very far. He’s now a lean, clean, rat-killing machine. He’s much happier and healthier now that he goes outside regularly. He might enjoy a shorter life than his indoor-only brother, but he’ll live longer and happier than he would have at his previous level of fatitude.