In Istanbul, the cat is king. The city is famous for its legions of feral felines. Even though no one technically owns them, these hundreds of thousands of street cats are as well cared for as any pet—people feed them, welcome them into their shops and homes, and even bring them to the vet. The kitty culture in Istanbul is notable enough that the Turkish city’s magical relationship with its feline residents is the subject of a new documentary, Kedi. And yes, it puts all other cat videos on Earth to shame.
Kedi follows seven street cats on their daily jaunts through the city, exploring their social lives and encounters with their favorite human friends. The documentary takes a cat’s-eye view of the city: The camera tracks low along the ground, eye-to-eye with the film’s feline stars as they roam the streets, following them into cafes, up onto rooftops, and down to the waterfront. Most have several human allies who care for them and whom they visit every day.
In interviews, these caretakers often meditate on the fiercely independent nature of the cats living around them. One compares being friends with a cat to communicating with aliens. Most of the interviewees call the cats that pop into their lives "friends," rather than "pets." The cats come and go as they please, each one with its own agenda and distinct personality. They might stop by for a bite to eat or for a round of petting, then move on to their next destination. Some stalk boldly into cafes, while others wait patiently outside for someone to bring them a snack.
Many cities have stray cats, but the people of Istanbul have an unusually friendly coexistence with their feline residents. Director Ceyda Torun, who was born and grew up in Istanbul before her family relocated to New York, attributes the city's unique relationship to its feral cat population to its culture. “Without the cat, Istanbul would lose part of its soul,” says one resident in the film’s opening.
Cats have a special place in Islamic folklore as well, Torun tells mental_floss. In one folktale, the prophet Muhammad cuts the sleeve off his robe to avoid disturbing his sleeping cat.
More importantly, cats have been wandering the city for millennia. Founded as Byzantium in 660 BCE, Istanbul has been a major trading port for centuries. And with the ships came the cats. The oldest known remains of a domestic cat were found in nearby Cyprus, where humans have likely had feline pets for some 9500 years, and Torun says there’s evidence of Turkish cat culture dating back more than three millennia. One zoologist she spoke to—who had been collecting animal remains under the Bosporus strait—found the 3500-year-old skeleton of a cat whose broken leg had been mended by human hands.
To get a sense of just how revered Istanbul's street cats are, consider this: In 2016, the city erected a statue by a local artist honoring a recently departed street cat, Tombili. He was so beloved (locally and on social media) that the petition for a statue of him gathered 17,000 signatures in less than two months. Street cats are welcome at mosques, in cafes, and in people’s apartments.
Torun and her crew spent three months in Istanbul finding both human and feline subjects before any filming even began. They took a two-pronged approach to their search, both roaming the streets themselves to look for cats and asking locals if there was a special cat in their neighborhood, including cats that hung out in a particularly unusual place, like a mosque or a Turkish bath. Some of the subjects, like the mother cat who stars in the first vignette—cheekily nicknamed “YellowS**t” by one shopkeeper who feeds her—were only discovered after production began.
As you might expect, cats don’t make entirely dependable film subjects. For one thing, they could get a little too excited about the cameras. At times, Torun says, “we had a hard time shooting because we had multiple cats on us rubbing their face on the camera rig.” They ended up with a lot of shots of cats “just rubbing themselves on the camera or rig or spraying things [with urine].” Luckily, once the cats had made a thorough inspection of the cameras, they tended to go back to whatever they were doing before. “We have hours and hours of footage of cats grooming themselves or sleeping. They weren’t going to perform,” Torun says.
And yet, in other ways, the cats were easier to film than you might expect. “They stick to routines,” Torun explains. “They do the same things over and over. They don’t really stray out of their territory.” All the documentary crew had to do was show up in the right places. They would come back every other day or so during the two months of shooting to see what the cats were up to. Some of them even seemed to know they were being filmed.
The cats would perform “as if they were getting instructions from me,” Torun says. The film ends on a rooftop, focused on a cat perched on a ledge as the sun sets over the city in the background. “He almost knew that we were making a movie and that was the best place,” says the director.
Torun ended up with 180 hours of footage of cats lounging around, stealing food, begging for attention, and more. The finished film, debuting in the U.S. on February 10 courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories, clocks in at an hour and 20 minutes. But if Torun decided to release those other 178-plus hours of cat videos, we wouldn’t be opposed.
All images courtesy Kedi.