In the city of the world's desire

Ceyda Torun on KEDi, cats, femininity and the soul of Istanbul.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

KEDi director Ceyda Torun: "Cats are so omnipresent."
KEDi director Ceyda Torun: "Cats are so omnipresent." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

There are film cat people such as Michael Haneke seen in Yves Montmayeur's Michael H - Profession: Director with Yves' cat Félix, Isabelle Huppert in Paul Verhoeven's Elle and Mia Hansen-Løve's Things To Come, Céline's Bébert in Emmanuel Bourdieu's Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Robert De Niro with Lil Bub of Andy Capper and Juliette Eisner's Lil Bub & Friendz at the Tribeca Film Festival and then there is Ceyda Torun's sharp-eyed documentary KEDi with Istanbul as cat central.

Duman has an unforgettable style of scoring little plates of smoked turkey and slices of Manchego cheese
Duman has an unforgettable style of scoring little plates of smoked turkey and slices of Manchego cheese

In 2008 at the Museum of Modern Art for Funny Games (starring Naomi Watts, Tim Roth, Michael Pitt, Brady Corbet), when Michael Haneke was asked by Ed Bahlman if he had any pets, he stated that he is "a cat person."

Shot by Charlie Wuppermann and Alp Korfali, KEDi begins with gulls swarming and squeaking above a city. We fly with them over water towards land. A town seen this way has something of Bodega Bay. We land and, without it being stated explicitly, get the feeling that so did the cats of Istanbul.

As little E.T.s from the skies or deities in furry disguise from the heavens, they are here to test us, amuse themselves with us and teach us by their sheer presence. A cat on a hot tin roof.

Snacks and water bowls mark alleys everywhere and signs warn tourists and cat agnostics not to mess with these offerings, or else. A handwritten posting on a wall threatens appropriately, the future in mind: "These cups are for cats and dogs. If you don't want to be desperate for a drink of water in the next life - don't touch these cups." Taking care of cats is serious business and the cats (Duman, Gamsiz, Bengü, Psikopat, Deniz, Aslan Parçasi, and Sari with her kittens) know it and show it.

Grown men who have seen their share of hardship don't hesitate to express how good cats are for us. "People who don't love animals can't love people either. That much I know," one of the men at the fish market concludes. Cats here are treated as individuals, different in look and character. Admiration of the gait of one of the film's little stars, shifts easily to commentary of what it means to be a woman in present-day Turkey.

Gamsız is quite a cat burglar and charms with his sideways knock
Gamsız is quite a cat burglar and charms with his sideways knock

Anne-Katrin Titze: Your film touches something very elemental. You talk about the essence of Istanbul in KEDi. It would loose some of its soul if the cats weren't there.

Ceyda Torun: Absolutely. It's a side of Istanbul that doesn't always get recognised. It gets recognised by the people who go visit Istanbul or who live there. But, you know, Istanbul is represented in a very sort of single-tone way. Obviously, the food world has been a wonderful new angle on Istanbul.

But in general, Istanbul is a couple of minarets from two famous mosques and then some exotic Turkish music and the tea and that's it! And that's very single-tone. And the real soul of the city is actually, I think, the cats. And the relationship between the cats and the people.

AKT: That relationship is extraordinary and not something that exists like that in many other places. The little bowls of food and water everywhere. Everybody seems to take care of them.

CT: It's so beautiful. Over this past winter - it just was a very heavy winter with really serious snowfall - I saw so many people going out of their way to provide extra shelter for them, extra food for them. Same for the dogs, of course, blankets for the dogs. But the cats, they all seem to get really attended to, which is beautiful to see.

AKT: There is some of that here in New York. There are some cat colonies near where I live. I don't know of any film that captures the magic of cats the way you do. Of course, cats pop up in narratives here and there or get a feature when they are Lil Bub. You loved cats your whole life, I don't even have to ask, it's so clear. When did you know this would make a film?

Isabelle Huppert: "In Things To Come it's a very, very big cat. Very heavy like an elephant."
Isabelle Huppert: "In Things To Come it's a very, very big cat. Very heavy like an elephant." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

CT: I didn't know it would be a film until a year prior to making the documentary. We went out to Istanbul to do a research shoot to see what the film could be. Originally I thought, forget about the people completely. Let's make a film just about cats in an urban setting. And Istanbul is such a unique setting where we can actually film them and we can get close to them because they're used to people.

So we filmed for a month and we came back. I live in L.A. with my cinematographer/co-producer/husband [Charlie Wuppermann]. It helps to be married to your crew people!

We put something together and experimented for quite a long time with what it could be. And we realised how philosophical Turks are. I mean, this is what I'm used to, but my husband, who is German, said "Do people all really talk like this?" And I'm like, "Yeah, this is how we talk." It's kind of odd, but we realised people were able to provide a voice in many ways to the position of cats in their lives.

Occasionally I think in the film it also comes through that a lot of times people project their own emotional [state] or prejudices about men and women. You know, that kind of stuff comes out through what they have to say about the cats.

AKT: You are referring to what somebody says about the elegance of cats? "You don't see it in women anymore. To be feminine is difficult." Who is the woman saying that?

Robert De Niro with Lil Bub at the Tribeca Film Festival
Robert De Niro with Lil Bub at the Tribeca Film Festival Photo: Tribeca Film Festival

CT: It's the painter whom you see right after that quote. She was also very shy to speak on camera. We filmed her working, we followed her around the streets and then recorded her voice. She was expressing something that I think a lot of women feel in Turkey and maybe in some other traditional societies around the world, where you don't feel comfortable.

You know, you're not really allowed to be fully feminine, because then it's considered slutty or loose. And if you are not at all feminine then you're considered frigid or useless as a human being because you are not being a woman. So she was expressing that.

AKT: In connection to the cats!

CT: Yes. In her interview - there's just so much material I couldn't include in the film - she was explaining more. It's a great example of somebody who would maybe not have talked about complexities and concerns about being a woman in Istanbul, in Turkey, if it hadn't been through what we were talking about the cats. They were the ultimate icebreaker.

AKT: Here's another terrific quote. Somebody says: "Petting a cat is a bit like making friends with an alien." Wow! What's the context for that?

CT: The lady who says that, she's a very outspoken journalist and author. She's the one with the dreadlocks in her hair, later you see. And she was referencing the uniqueness of communicating almost on an even level with another species. Because in her opinion, and I agree, cats are very unique in the way that we communicate and exist with them.

Yves Montmayeur's Félix was in Michael H - Profession: Director
Yves Montmayeur's Félix was in Michael H - Profession: Director Photo: Yves Montmayeur

They're not at all a duty animal, a work animal for us. It's sort of a mutual, reciprocal friendship that formed between us. They always make us feel - and we are very well aware - that they choose to spend time with us. It's almost like we're on equal terms.

AKT: And the decision making is always there. The relationship can never be taken for granted.

CT: No. So it has this almost like another sentient being feeling. They're maybe like aliens.

AKT: A man at the fish market says: "People who don't love animals can't love people either. That much I know."

CT: That guy, he wasn't the only one who said that quote. A few other people repeated it later in our shoot as well. It's something that people refer back to as a justification for their tending to these animals. A few people do give a lot, a lot of themselves and a lot of their financial resources to taking care of these cats. That particular quote … It's a bit harsh to say.

I don't think everyone needs to love animals or needs to love cats. But I do believe that there is something about if you mistreat or purposely not love another creature of any kind, then you're not capable of love in general.

Green-eyed Bengü loves to be petted and she has remarkably individual paw gestures
Green-eyed Bengü loves to be petted and she has remarkably individual paw gestures

AKT: I agree with you. It is interesting how often in my conversations with filmmakers cats come up. Isabelle Huppert, for example, is a cat person.

CT: She just did a movie with a cat.

AKT: Cats are in both Elle and Things To Come. When I spoke with Yves Montmayeur who made a documentary on Michael Haneke it came out how both love cats. Actually, the only pets that are safe in a Haneke movie are cats.

The Artistic Director of the Tribeca Film Festival, Frédéric Boyer, spun a tale with me about having cats run around the VW Dome at MoMA PS1. I interviewed Emmanuel Bourdieu and we spoke about Bébert, Céline's famous cat.

CT: Cats are so omnipresent. They've been like that in our lives for so long. I wanted to focus on the timelessness of their presence in Istanbul and that's why there's nothing exactly topical other than some subtle political notes here and there which are integral to their existence right now.

It just happened to be while we were filming there were protests going on. So you see a lot of graffiti and stuff which is my subtle way of also not completely avoiding or ignoring the subject. But I didn't want to highlight anything political because I think cats are bigger than that.

AKT: I think it even is political. The way the cats are treated, what you show us, that is a political statement in itself.

Michael Haneke is a cat man
Michael Haneke is a cat man Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

CT: Yeah, that's true.

AKT: It speaks of something we need to protect. Something that is in danger. I didn't feel that you skipped out of something.

CT: That's wonderful.

Read what Ceyda Torun had to say on the cats of Istanbul, Haruki Murakami, and how KEDi was shot.

KEDi opens in the UK on June 30.

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