Film

The secret lives of Istanbul's stray cats

Everyday thousands of cats roam the plazas and alleyways of Istanbul. The city belongs to them, but they belong to nobody. The new documentary film "Kedi" is a cinematic love letter to the wild street animals.

The most endearing cat in this entertaining documentary film is Duman, the Gentleman. Gray and white stripes, green eyes, a ring encircling his neck, a little chubby around the hips - such is the description in the filmmaker's casting notes. "Profession: gourmand." A street cat with markedly refined manners.

Only when ravenous does he raid a trash container. Yet he can stay poised for minutes in front of a cleared restaurant table without placing the a paws on its surface.

He lives in one of the most elegant districts of Istanbul, but he never begs. That would be beneath his feline values. His allies are the owners of expensive gourmet restaurants. All the waiters know him here.

When his hunger has been piqued from long meanderings through the bustling metropolis, all he has to do is give a little scratch on an establishment's door and wait until his meal is placed before him on the cobblestones. Smoked fish and cheese are his preferred dishes.

Read more: Cat cults and cult cats for International Cat Day

A still from kedi by Ceyla Torun (Termite Films)

Thousands of stray cats live in Istanbul

A glimpse into the secret world of cats

Together with her husband and co-producer Charlie Wuppermann, the young director Ceyda Torun filmed a documentary that refreshes the heart. "Kedi" (Turkish for "cat"), her first solo movie, is a Turkish-American coproduction. It launches in movie theaters on August 8, International Cat Day, and promises to turn each viewer into a cinematic kitty lover in mere seconds.

You can't escape the magic of Charlie Wuppermann's camera work with its animal empathy, accompanied by Kira Fontana's Eastern-influenced film music. The editorial sequence tells the stories that life writes. 

For the first time, you can discover a city like Istanbul from the perspective of a street cat. Totally new points of view open up, just 10, maybe 15 centimeters above the ground - far from the beaten tourist path.

Ceyda Torun, director of the film Kedi (TERMITE FILMS)

Documentary director Ceyda Torun grew up with street cats as her companions

That's why the film team spent three months roaming the city of two million inhabitants and its bordering suburbs, constantly on the hunt for cat stories, Ceyda Torun said in a Skype interview with DW. "We talked to people everywhere in the area who have something to do with cats on the street. And we asked them about their relationships to these cats."

Read more: Family camping trips where the cat comes along

Cats don't follow a script

Until then, cameraman Charlie Wuppermann had never filmed a documentary. The time-intensive film work also posed a special challenge for the German co-producers: Cats don't follow any script. They just do whatever comes into their feline heads in that moment.

"At first we had picked out 35 cats as protagonists for the film," director Ceyda Torun explained. "But once we wanted to begin filming, we could only find 19. The others just didn't reappear."

It was exciting, Wuppermann said. "Our method was that we followed the cats and took on their perspectives. To achieve that, we worked simultaneously with multiple cameras and primarily with a remote-controlled camera on a mobile base, so we could follow the cats to places that humans couldn't go."

The cameraman had success in getting extraordinary insight into the daily world of stray cats. He was even able to capture the adrenaline-packed hunt for a fat canal rat by using a night vision camera.

A still from the film Kedi directed by Ceyla Torun (TERMITE FILMS)

A stray feline in Istanbul finds a comfy bed above the city's hustle and bustle

It takes more than just beauty

But cats don't let themselves be manipulated, especially not wild, headstrong stray cats, laughed Wuppermann, who did his master's at the London Film School. "We totally failed trying to secure microchip cameras to the cats. They didn't like that at all. And in documentary hindsight, that would have also been too manipulative."

Some cats also reacted aggressively to the remote-controlled camera, Wuppermann added, attacking them with their claws before running off.

The film work that crisscrossed Istanbul took on the appearance of a crime hunt for traces of the four-footed protagonists, director Torun said. She spent her childhood in Istanbul with just such stray cats. "They were my teachers and my companions. And my best friends."

When she was 11-years-old, the family left Turkey, living first in Amman, Jordan, and eventually in New York. She rarely ever came across a street cat there, said the filmmaker. It is rather the domesticated house cat that belongs to daily culture.

A still from kedi by Ceyla Torun (Termite Films)

Thousands of stray cats live in Istanbul

The small tiger inside every cat

The movie is much more than an entertaining cat video. It accompanies seven pedestrians with paws, each one armed with claws and a highly individual character, through their daily life in the mega-city. As a documentary film, it tells the tale of the profound relationship that humans have with cats and serves as a mirror to society.

Street cats like the ones you find in Rome and Istanbul are unthinkable in the United States or Asia simply for hygienic reasons, Ceyda Torun said.

Read more: Plan to deport strays ignites cat fight on social media

The anthropologist by training explained how relevant archaeological excavations in Istanbul have shown that cats have been living there for more than 3,500 years. "When you are sitting on a park bench somewhere in Istanbul, a cat usually comes by, asking to be petted, just as if you had known it forever. You spend an hour with it; it's very familiar. And then, each one goes his own way."

The four-footed film stars were also the film team's teachers this time around, Charlie Wuppermann said. "We have worked frequently with telephoto lenses. And when you look from close up into the eyes of a cat, you could also take it for a tiger."

After film worked wrapped up, Torun's favorite cat was definitely the cuddly Bengü, with her checkered gray and brown coat and emerald-green eyes. "She also ran up to us right away when we called her. I love cats that greet you and lovingly purr their way around your legs."

The documentary film "Kedi" (USA/Turkey 2016) opens on August 10, 2017, in cinemas across the globe and is released on DVD. More info: www.kedifilm.com

A still from the film Kedi by Ceyda Torun (TERMITE FILMS)

A street cat in Istanbul takes in the sunset over the Bosphorus at the end of a long day

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