ISTANBUL, Turkey — Anyone who has ever been to Istanbul, Turkey’s biggest city, knows that it has harboured cats in its labyrinthine streets for centuries. They roam freely, bonding with humans as they see fit. The cats’ relationship with the city and the people that inhabit it inspired Ceyda Torun, a Turkish filmmaker now living in the United States, to shoot a feature-length documentary, chronicling the adventures of seven felines.
Kedi (“cat” in Turkish) was enthusiastically received in international festivals and during limited runs in independent theatres; it has since opened in large US cities and is becoming available to more viewers worldwide. The film, which had its Turkish premiere in Istanbul in February 2016, is finally coming to multiple screens in Istanbul and beyond on June 8.
Can you tell us about yourself? Where were you born? Where do you live now? What’s your life story?
CEYDA TORUN: I was born in Istanbul and lived in the Caddebostan neighbourhood [on the Asian side] as a child. I think I’m very lucky that I got to spend my childhood in Istanbul with the street cats being my best friends. At the time — this is late 1970s, early 1980s — Istanbul was a little different, it was a little more carefree; we all played on the streets, had a lot of fun.
Then we, as a family, started moving around, first to Jordan, then to the US to work. And then for high school. I went to college in Boston, and came back to Istanbul for a few years to start working in film alongside a great filmmaker, Reha Erdem. Then I moved to London and worked in film there for a few years, and then I moved to Los Angeles. Now I [have lived] in Los Angeles for the last ten years. That’s my life in a nutshell.
How is it living between Istanbul and Los Angeles?
CT: I come to Istanbul often. There were maybe ten years when I didn’t come to Istanbul. Now in my adult life, I try to come more than once a year, trying to make work as an excuse to be in Istanbul. Actually, that’s how this film was originally conceived: My producing partner and cinematographer Charlie Wuppermann and I started our own production company [Termite Films], and we were creating films we wanted to make.
We thought we should make a documentary. Of course we both love Istanbul, and any excuse we can make to come to Istanbul is a good excuse. So that was our starting point, and I think I’m very lucky that I could come to Istanbul as often as I did from the time that we left. My mother was very keen that I would not lose touch with my roots and it gave me a very interesting perspective to see the city change every year so drastically. But certain things still remain the same. And one of these things was the cats. It all came together very nicely that I got to make this film about cats in Istanbul.
How did you come up with the idea of basing an entire feature-length film on Istanbul’s cats?
CT: You know, it was very serendipitous, very lucky that at the time that we started filming on this idea, the internet cat renaissance was reaching its bloom. We could actually point investors to the internet whether it was YouTube cat videos whether it was cat food companies funding research about how many people own cats in the US and Europe and the world … We could actually use that as legitimate evidence that a film about cats was going to be successful.
But to have it be in Istanbul is to me a no-brainer because I’ve never lived in any other city where cats had the same kind of relationship with people in the city the way they do in Istanbul. There are many other cities in the world and islands that have lots of cats but the dynamics are very different. There are cat haven islands in Asia and there’s also stray cat populations around the world but they just don’t have this interaction with people that they do in Istanbul.
You could tell from online followers of Istanbul cats and the fact that every single tourist who ever visited Istanbul came back with more cat pictures than anything else. It’s obvious that it’s a very unique phenomenon, but also an opportunity to be able to film cats in ways that we don’t [normally] get to film them.
Are you expecting Turkish audiences to react differently to the film from international audiences? In what ways?
CT: Our first screening of the film was at !f Istanbul last year in 2016. And the response was so positive and so encouraging… That was my biggest worry — that I would not do justice to the city or the people or the cats, being someone who doesn’t live in Istanbul full-time and someone who only visits.
I have such fond memories from my childhood that a lot of the film is, of course, influenced by my romanticised feelings about cats in Istanbul as well ... The positive response was so overwhelming that I felt that we had done justice to the cats and the people and the city. For those who speak Turkish and for those who are from Istanbul, the film has multiple levels, layers of enjoyment I think.
A lot of our European and American audiences don’t understand the musical choices; they don’t have an emotional connection to any of the songs nor do they understand the language of the words. Then there’s obviously nuanced references to social things here and there that only Turks will understand and which I think is a wonderful thing. It can be enjoyed by different people in different ways.
Istanbul’s love affair with cats is a novelty to foreigners, but here it is very much part of everyday culture. How do you think that will impact on how Turkish viewers relate to your film?
CT: I know that there’s always a concern over representing the darker sides of cats’ lives in Istanbul and the struggles that cat advocates or animal activists have in Turkey ... My biggest aim for Turkish audiences was to remind ourselves that the majority of us are loving, caring human beings, and even if we are overpopulated and there’s too many people and there’s a struggle, there is goodness in people.
We need to be reminded of those things. Funnily enough, that’s the one thing that the American and Canadian and Australian audiences have been responding so positively to, because in this day and age where everything is dark and the news is always quite heavy and pessimistic, it helps to have things that remind us that we are loving, caring human beings. There are plenty of us out there who are like that, and we should celebrate that aspect of our humanity.
Kedi is the most watched Turkish film in US theatres ever. Do you think it will change how Americans understand Turkish culture?
CT: I think the film is definitely changing the way that people in the United States think of Turkey and Turks. I often get responses and comments from people who’ve seen the film expressing astonishment that they didn’t know that Turks were so loving, so philosophical, and poetic about their thinking about cats and so devoted to the lives of these creatures — in the United States cats are currently the number one pet so everyone’s a little cat crazy here.
I think [the film has] done wonders for Turkey’s reputation, and also it seems to be changing people’s minds about what they think when they think of a Muslim person or someone in the Middle East, because a lot of the times Americans think of Turkey as being part of the Middle East.
It’s been really gratifying to get that kind of feedback because I am proud of my people, and I’m proud of my heritage, and I think our relationship with cats and the way that we care for them is very unique and telling of the kind of people that we are and can be. It makes me very happy to see those kinds of reactions from non-Turks towards Turks. Hopefully it’ll continue that way. I think there might be a big tourism influx in the future for cat tourism or something.
There’s that scene where Duman (Smokey) is dining on gourmet foods, salmon and cold cuts and imported cheeses, and the song in the background is Peki Peki Anladik (Okay Okay We Got It), which is about a snobby friend. This is one example of a reference that Turkish audiences are much more likely to understand. How did you select the music?
CT: I drew most of the references from my personal favourites, which is I guess what you do as a director, so I can proudly say that of course these were a majority of songs that I grew up with, that I have an emotional connection to. I sought counsel from Zeynep Boyner, one of the co-producers of the film, who is very much involved in the music industry in Turkey and is very, very knowledgeable about ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s rock especially.
I sought help from friends and family to get feedback on, in terms of generational influences. I didn’t really know about Mavi Isiklar before I started putting together the musical selections, but it’s just so wonderful to me that there’s different songs from different eras that evoke a sense of nostalgia for viewers of different ages.
What was important to me was aside from the Turkish music which I selected, particularly as music that had been influenced by Western musical influences, but also I tried to find Western musicians who were influenced by Turkish music or Eastern music, like Lloyd Miller who was this amazing jazz musician who travelled through Turkey and Iran in the ‘40s and ‘50s and recorded jazz with local musicians who had never heard jazz before.
Then there’s Eartha Kitt singing Uskudar’a [Gider Iken, which appears as Uska Dara in her 1953 album] which is probably the most iconic Istanbul song but in a very Eartha Kitt way. And there’s Levent Yildirim who is one of the most amazing darbuka players, French-Turkish guy who creates these amazing pieces of music. All of that was very consciously chosen to create the feeling that Istanbul has been, and still is, and hopefully will always be, a place where the East and the West meet, in every sense of the word.
Do you have any pets? How did they influence your life?
CT: I don’t own any animals exclusively. I know it sounds so funny but I try to talk about it in a different way… My greatest experience with other animals has been on their own territories, including whether they were street cats, or whether they were other wild animals, or farm animals — animals I didn’t officially own.
I find that we have to be really responsible before we go out and “own” an animal. Our lives are very transient these days. I have to be away six weeks, eight weeks at a time from home, which I find puts a lot of stress on an animal that is highly dependent on me.
I am waiting to be a little bit more permanent in my movements or at least make it possible to take my animals with me. But in the meantime I make do with other friends’ animals who come and spend time with us when those friends are away, and we have some neighbourhood cats who like to visit us on their own terms, and that’s how I satisfy my need.
I mean it was so difficult leaving the shoots after filming, after making this film in Istanbul at the end of the summer of 2014 it was really so very tempting to just … you know … take all these cats with us! But then I always felt guilty because I can’t ask a cat his permission or her permission to remove her from the world she knows … That’s why I’m such an advocate of [ways] to coexist with nature in as many ways as possible … of making space for nature in urban environments, especially because we need nature as much as nature needs us.
It would be such a shame to marginalise nature in such a way that you don’t have any of it properly in an urban environment or in the environment where people, the majority of people live. In the United States, for example, after these kinds of screenings, a lot of discussions turn to that kind of thinking: How do we have more of this, in a way that is acceptable to the Western American or Western European mentality?
Here in the US, for example, they’ve started initiatives where they place cats in shelters to warehouses and docks, ports — places where there’s rodent problems, so that the cats actually have a function and a purpose and they feel like it’s their place without having their lives be more difficult. There’s definitely room for all of this. We just have to think a little more creatively.
How did you decide on which cats to film, and who to interview?
CT: It was a very straightforward process. We came in the summer of 2013 for our initial research phase. We didn’t know what the film could be. After talking to a lot of people on the street, just randomly striking up conversations with people we didn’t know on the street, we started to see that the relationship between people and the cats was the most important aspect of this idea.
Before we came back to start the actual filming in the summer of 2014 we had three months of research phrase where we had local producers literally walking the streets of Istanbul from every single neighbourhood you can imagine, asking people about a cat in their neighbourhood that everybody knows, or a cat that’s in a hamam [traditional Turkish bathhouse], or a cat that’s in a mosque…We had leads to 35 cats before we started filming. As we started filming we could only find 19 of them because they don’t all stick around!
In the end it came down to the seven that are in the film because we had a limited amount of time and budget to follow them and not all of them revealed a full story that we could use as a freestanding story that explores a particular scene. There are a few that had been cut out that are making it to the DVD extras which makes me very happy. But there’s endless stories.
Honestly it was strictly who would talk to us, which cat … If a cat ran away when we approached with the cameras then we knew that he wasn’t giving us consent so we never pursued him. It was the same with people. If we approached people and they immediately didn’t want to talk to us about anything then we knew that they weren’t gonna reveal anything. We did try to find people who don’t like cats or who hate cats, who give trouble to the people next to them for being cat lovers and it was very interesting to find that those were the people who just didn’t make eye contact with us, who didn’t want to talk to us.
Even when I would pretend to not like cats, “OK let’s talk about how annoying cats are,” and they still wouldn’t talk. I think there were those people who are very closed people who are not open to anything, let alone cats!
Then the rest of the people that we did interview were people who had these great insights about themselves and about life and their place in it because of their relationship with cats. And then there’s a bunch of people that we interviewed who are not in the film. They provided us with great insight because of this relationship and gave us some beautiful quotes that we could use, including Bogazici University professors and amazing zoologists [and] veterinarians from [Istanbul University] and people who gave us scientific and sociological significance of these animals.
But in the edit it was very clear only people who were immediately interacting with a cat on screen worked for … the visuals of the film.
Will there be a Kedi 2? What is your next project?
CT: There could be multiple Kedis, there’s no end to it. We could probably still be filming right now I’m sure! I would love for there to be more Kedi stories and there is an idea on continuing, further expanding on the Kedi idea in Istanbul, in Turkey, the rest of the world.
[There’s] also the idea that I was working on at the same time as doing Kedi which was to do other animals in different cities because it’s such a wonderful way to get to know the people in the city, very differently then we get to in other ways. So that’s an idea that’s working itself out on its own with a group of other people but I have a few other documentary projects I’m pursuing.
My narrative scripted projects are also getting moved forward. So there’s quite a few things on my plate but the beautiful thing about working on documentaries as well as fictional work at the same time — which I hope to do for the rest of my career — is that it allows you to shuffle between the two different types of projects. While the narrative projects are on hold because they’re waiting for either more financing or actors to attach, you can still work on your documentary ideas and there’s endless subjects that are exciting and worth pursuing. Hopefully soon I will have more information for you!