7 of the most adorable cats in Istanbul. This must be the purr-fect documentary

The alley cats of Istanbul are cat-alogued in the wonderful new documentary Kedi. Here are the do’s and don’ts of feline filmmaking, courtesy of director Ceyda Torun.

30 June 2017

By Joseph Walsh

Kedi (2016)

To say the internet is obsessed with cats is an understatement. In 2015, there were over 2m cat videos on YouTube, and the Instagram account of Grumpy Cat has 2.3m followers. Just Google ‘Meowspeak’ to see how far back in history our online obsession with cats goes.

Our love of cats is in part what prompted Turkish filmmaker Ceyda Torun to embark on a very personal project, capturing the lives of the adorable street cats that populate the rooftops and ancient alleyways of Istanbul in her charming documentary Kedi.

We spoke with her about how she came to craft the cat’s whiskers of documentaries, as well as the do’s and don’ts of putting cats on screen.

Kedi (2016)

The right cat-titude

Hundreds of thousands of cats populate the ancient alleyways and rooftops of Istanbul, and it was no mean feat for Torun to document their lives. At first she and her team considered a traditional nature documentary, but during a research trip in the summer of 2013 she found the film going in a different direction: “As we were talking to people we realised how philosophical and poetic people were being about the cats.”

Kedi (2016)

Torun soon realised that it would be a beautiful way to show a different side to Istanbul, away from the tourist traps and news coverage.

But there were challenges. She spent long days and nights tracking her subjects. “We would get up at the crack of dawn because that is when you would start to hear the cats moving about on the rooftops. We would film them up there. All day, every day, we would be getting footage of the cats – even when we would stop for lunch or dinner. It was exhausting but wonderful.”

For Torun, it was a case of staying out of the cats’ way. “If we filmed a cat and it ran away, we saw it as not giving consent to be filmed.” Then there were other problems. “You would get into position and all they want to do is rub their face on the camera rig, jump up at you, or you would get a perfectly framed shot and they would just run straight up to the camera. We have so much footage of cats just licking themselves with their leg up in the air.”

Kedi (2016)

A cat above the rest

Prior to filming, Torun had filmmaking friends scour the city in search of stories about cats and their human onlookers. She would then have Skype conversations trying to whittle down the right subjects. For her it came down to a few qualifiers. “We were driven by visuals and story. We wanted cats that united people, or said something special about the area.”

Kedi (2016)

When they started filming she had selected 35 cats, capturing footage of 19, which was reduced to seven for the final film. “We really wanted nine, for obvious reasons, but seven was actually better because there was room for the transitional elements of the film that added another dimension.” 

The cat-cam

Torun had to be both patient and inventive to get the footage she wanted. One tricky shot involved capturing a local cat who helped out a restaurant owner by keeping the area clear of mice. “We chained our Hunter camera, which is a motion activated infrared camera, to the gutter and left it there for five nights towards the end of the shoot.”

But there was a problem. “When we went back through the footage all the other cats in the area had caught a rat apart from the cat we had been focusing on. We just thought, ‘Dammit! We were following the wrong cat!’

“In the end it worked out, because it turned out that the cat that caught the rat was the one that we spoke to the waiter about.”

Kedi (2016)

AristoCats and Attenborough

Growing up, Torun’s choice of viewing on Sunday mornings was either Disney movies or David Attenborough wildlife documentaries. These twin influences informed her approach to Kedi.

“Those were the only things I would watch until I was 10 or 11. I think this movie is a blend of both. There is something of Homeward Bound (1993), but it’s also a nature documentary. My childhood perspective definitely shaped this film.”

As well as this, memories of spending whole days befriending and following cats in her neighbourhood kindled her passion to make the film. “As a child, you can spend the whole day with a cat and watch it, and see how it lives. As an adult, other things get in the way. It’s amazing how much of their lives we miss out on. Even the people we spoke with, who know these cats, didn’t know the full story.”

Kedi (2016)

For Torun, however, cinema has done little to counter negative attitudes to cats. “The problem is that most cats on screen don’t seem very happy to be there. They are usually good motivation for a character – like Jones in Alien (1979). I often think animations serve cats better, like A Cat in Paris (2010) or The AristoCats (1970).”

The moral of the tail

While Kedi afforded Torun the opportunity to explore her lifelong passion for the street cats of Istanbul, she hopes that people will take away a different perspective on how humans and cats co-exist.

Her fear is that the population increase and changing architectural landscape of Istanbul affects both the human and feline residents. “The street cats have evolved to like us and exist with us naturally. I’m worried that the way we have multiplied and the way we treat each other in cities is what is going to happen to the cats.”

Kedi (2016)

More hopefully, she sees Kedi as an opportunity for audiences to change their perspective about sharing our cities with other animals. “There is often this black-and-white binary of cats as pets or not, and in Istanbul that isn’t the case. I think it is our loss if we can’t exist with them in a more organic way.”

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