“Where have all the good men gone?” Bonnie Tyler once crooned. Turns out, all the good men are in Istanbul, taking care of cats.
I discovered this at a screening of Kedi, Turkish filmmaker Ceyda Torun’s stirring documentary about the street cats of Istanbul (playing now at Metrograph), an unlikely showcase of male heroism far more compelling than any Avengers movie. Throughout the film, we follow seven cats across the city — from Aslan the hunter, who fends off the mice at a famous fish restaurant, to Duman the glutton, who waits outside a posh deli for his daily smoked-meat snack — all with personalities as distinct as the neighborhoods they call home. We also meet a group of men (some women, but mostly men) from all walks of life who feed and care for the cats: who keep watch over their comings and goings, and who speak of them with all the dreamy reverence of lovelorn poets.
“Of course I can’t take the place of their mother, but I do what I can,” says my strong Turkish husband, a scruffy fisherman in a beanie and Adidas zip-up who feeds kittens with a syringe. Fifteen years ago, a street cat saved his life by pointing him toward a wallet full of money, and he has devoted his life to caring for them ever since. “God brings us closer to him in different ways,” he explains, as he nuzzles his face into one cat’s soft neck fur. “For me it was these animals. I guess I was worthy of his love.”
In making the film, Torun was interested in exploring the unusual relationship the people of Istanbul have to their famous street-cat population, caring for these creatures communally and allowing them to live and roam freely. While the notion of “the cat lady” is deeply embedded in our culture, what she ended up discovering was that most of the people who took care of large groups of cats were men. She also found the love of cats to be a surprisingly powerful ice-breaker, allowing Torun to forge an instant emotional connection with people she wouldn’t normally come into contact with: fisherman, shopkeepers, laborers.
“Cats were this powerful knife with which I could cut straight to the heart of something and the mind-set of somebody,” she told me. For many of the men in the film, the love of cats served as a vehicle for them to access deeper feelings that they wouldn’t otherwise have felt comfortable sharing. “People were very ready to open up because they felt like being recognized, and having a complete stranger spend quite a significant amount of time to give respect to the love they have for these animals, validated their own love of them,” she explained. “They made them feel it was okay to love so much.”
Torun doesn’t linger too long on the individual men’s stories — indeed, while we learn the cats’ names, we never learn theirs — and yet she manages to capture moments of profound depth in even the most perfunctory interactions. Cats are revered in Islam, and many of the men treat their relationships with the local felines as a way for them to connect with the divine (“Cats know that people act as middlemen to God’s will,” offers one). For others, the benefits of cat-loving are more therapeutic in nature. We meet a businessman who walks the streets feeding what appears to be at least 50 cats, delivering antibiotic drops to a kitten with an eye infection and chronicling the feline relationships in his neighborhood with the social dexterity of a high-school clique leader (“I know this one’s mother, her aunts, all five generations,” he says proudly). The businessman suffered a nervous breakdown in 2002, and caring for cats was his form of therapy. “No drug was able to cure me. I believe I got healthy again by taking care of them. Before I wasn’t able to talk or laugh,” he says. “Let’s just say they make a person fall in love again.”
While the sensitive, cerebral cat guy has become a bit of a familiar type in recent years, Kedi showcases a different kind of human-animal relationship, one that feels more pure given its lack of possessiveness or ownership. Kedi is a film about cats, but it’s also a film about love — an egoless kind of love that doesn’t try to exert control or demand reciprocity, but simply takes joy in the existence of another creature.
As one guy says proudly of his neighborhood scavenger, a feral black-and-white bully named Psychopath: “She is the toughest among all the females. Trouble for all the fisherman, a fish thief, arch enemy of the dogs. She is the neighborhood psychopath.” (Making that my new Twitter bio.) But Psychopath’s feral nature isn’t something to be tamed or trained out of her —- it’s what makes her who she is.
“She does as she wishes,” he adds with a smile. “That’s very important to me — that she never compromises her freedom.”