“I can haz cat documentary?”
Leshu Torchin (University of St. Andrews)
“If Grumpy Cat is the blockbuster franchise of cat videos, Kedi is the Citizen Kane of the genre,” writes Eric Kohn, IndieWire reviewer and unapologetic ailurophile. Even if casually made, the comparison to the Hollywood classic suits this cat documentary. This is not to say cats are as imperious as Kane (although they well might be), but that they, too, are elusive subjects, demanding not one but many vignettes featuring the perspectives of those who know them. And as with Kane the pleasure of these stories is tempered by evanescence: Kedi’s story is about an Istanbul whose changes might no longer support the lives of these inhabitants, human and feline. And there’s the cinematography. The portraits of the cats are presented in stunning close-ups, remarkable both for the glorious features of the subjects and for the detail; it seems at times as if each hair could be counted.
But while Kohn’s comparison to Citizen Kane might stand, what of his genre assignment? Kedi’s debut on YouTube Red suggests the designation of cat video is apt, but is it just an extended cat video, even if one of tremendous quality? Perhaps I ought take back the use of the word “just” in my previous sentence. “Just a… cat video” minimizes the relation of this nonfiction object to documentary. Cat videos are, after all, observed stories of an unselfconscious subject, typically unaware of the camera, and often unwilling (in contrast to their canine counterparts) to perform for it. As such, these videos suggest a privileged, if sometimes inscrutable, truth captured and presented. The amateur nature of the footage enhances that semblance of authenticity. Meanwhile, these markers of truth and the promise of information come up against the pleasures of the spectacle – the assumption that entertainment compromises the educational mission of a documentary.
Spectacular or non-narrative qualities might characterize the cat video, but even then, this is complicated. Cat videos, such as those issued by Cole and Marmalade, often supply text as complement to the sound and image in order produce story and character. And when not internally supplied, distribution and exhibition platforms become the means of imposing and directing meaning. The poster of a video can offer contextualizing statements, and viewers certainly offer their thoughts in comments sections. Cat videos and their subjects are even subject to meaning making through fandoms, where information is sought out and pages followed. Not an expert in the production of cat celebrity (if I were, more would know my own Mieke), I can nonetheless name celebrity cats, made famous in their videos and image macros: Maru, Grumpy Cat, and Lil Bub, to mention a few.
Unlike the cat video, Kedi need not rely on external comment for meaning. This is produced internally through the organization of the presentation, and the interviews with the human subjects of the film: the caretakers of each neighborhood cat. Split into sequences, the film begins with the orange and white Sari making her way through Galata, picking up food along the way. She is a hunter, according to a local shopkeeper, who has either adopted or been adopted by this cat. Bengü purrs her way through Karaköy, winning over the men, some of whom call her family. Deniz is the lively socialite of the marketplace, according to footage that depicts his travels, and the interviews with the sellers. The Little Lion keeps rats away from a fish restaurant by the Bosphorous, earning his keep. There are some outsize personalities as well: Gamsiz, who has not only won over the neighborhood, but has also charmed his way into the flat of a woman and her domestic cat; there’s the grey “gentleman”, who receives this name because he does not enter a restaurant to beg, but rather pays at the door before being fed his gourmet platter of smoked meats and cheeses; and Psikopat – the psychopath who watches after her “husband” and fights with others who get too close.
What would seem to distinguish these vignettes from the typical cat video is that each of these stories comes with information about the people of Istanbul. The cats are the attraction, but they also occasion deeper reflections on life, religion, and gender. One man recalls a long history of cats as pets, and a makeshift pet cemetery he and his brother made using crosses as markers. Although innocently adopted from watching films, this act angered his Muslim father. Another relates the appearance of a cat to his discovery of a wallet and an ability to replace his boat – a “godsend” that led to his caring for cats. An artist describes the enviable and defiant femininity of cats, which she believes has been lost to women.
Throughout, the cats are linked to Istanbul itself, whether to its history as a port city, which is how many of the cats arrived, or to the ways communities come together around the care of a cat. Men and women take on the feeding of cats in their homes, workplaces, and tours of neighborhoods. Vets care for local cats free of charge, or people donate to the cause. It is this deeply woven portrait of human, cat, and city that make the indications of change so painful. Developing highways sweep away cat and human life both, changing this landscape and its character. Although Torun disavows any political intention for this film, the praise of a human and non-human bond and the lament of its erosion resonates with the Gezi Park protests that took place the year before the shooting of the documentary. In these, the rally against the closing of a public park called attention to the need for human and non-human communion, and in the government crackdowns that followed, a suggestion of how deeply enmeshed such communion is with how one envisions a hopeful society.
The political implications embedded in the depiction of human and non-human relations are nothing new to documentary. Wildlife and nature documentaries have been linked to conservation, whether by virtual preservation on film or through explicit links to advocacy efforts. And these may not be so new to the world of online animal videos. Batzilla the Bat may produce videos that are just as suited to distribution through Animals Eating Fruit, but the delivery focuses on issues endangering Australia’s flying fox bats. Each video of a bat is accompanied by the story of its rescue and recovery as well as the harm it faced and how to prevent that harm. The Fiona Show produces a celebrity animal as visitor attraction for the Cincinnati Zoo, but the story of the baby hippo highlights the conservation and caretaking role of the zoological institution. Even TinyKittens, dedicated to streaming births and kittens and telling stories of feral cat colonies, communicates their mission to catch, spay, and release. “Rescuing locally, educating globally” is their logo. These videos then reflect the practice of many a wildlife documentary, albeit in expanded and open space.
To ask then, if Kedi is an extended cat video might too readily reify the distinctions between animal videos (and their delivery mechanisms) and documentary. Or, as I hope, this question invites continued exploration of the documentary work and nature of the digital phenomenon of animal videos.
“A Feline City Symphony”
Yiman Wang (University of California, Santa Cruz)
Kedi (Ceyda Turon, 2016) is a veritable city symphony of Istanbul – through the eyes of the street cats and the voices of the local human residents. Dedicated to “the cats of Istanbul and all the Istanbulites who love and care for the city’s animals,” the documentary opens with titles stating that cats have witnessed Istanbul’s history of vicissitudes, and that they are enmeshed in the fabric of everyday life. The film consists primarily of an assemblage of vignettes featuring seven named cats going about their cat business, while local residents narrate, and sometimes anthropomorphize, the cats as they enact petting and feeding interactions with them. Interweaving the crossing paths of street cats and human residents, the documentary is not just 70-minutes of cuteness overload; more importantly, it engages with the global issue of capital-intense gentrification and the resulting disintegration of community and the erosion of inter-human and inter-species caring relationships. As the last female voiceover states, the local residents’ concerns for street cats and for people are correlated as they all face the same troubles of being dislocated from their home environments. Thus, she says, to solve the street cats problem is also to solve the human problem by rekindling a sense of humor and joy for life.
The focus on the crisscrossing street life and its wide spectrum of rhythms from dawn to dusk is a trademark of the genre of city symphony developed in the 1920s. Kedi offers a surprisingly delightful reinvention of this genre by re-centering on the omnipresent street cats whose day and night activities such as prowling, playing, hunting, nursing kittens, fighting for territory, napping, receiving affection, and observing the world dictate the rhythms of the editing. Indeed, the lettering of the film title, Kedi, appears as cut-out windows on an aerial shot of the Istanbul cityscape, succinctly prefiguring the documentary’s feline orientation.
Filmed by Charlie Wuppermann and Alp Korfali, the cat-infused street scenes alternate among three prominent camerawork patterns—wide-angle shots, extended steadicam sequences tracking cats as well as people, and extreme close-up shots. In the wide-angle shots, multiple cats navigate erratically across different planes of the field of vision. They are simultaneously the figure and the background, participants and observers in the tapestry of urban life. In the extended steadicam sequences, the camera is positioned at the cats’ level, sometimes even lower, tracking them slinking around people’s feet, navigating subterranean nooks and holes. The extreme low-level camera movement skimming just above the ground gives a new orientation to the fast-paced rhythm celebrated in the city symphony genre. If the 1920s city documentaries merge pedestrians walking into train wheels spinning and other mechanized rhythms to produce a montaged symphony, then Kedi uses the slinking cats’ erratic footwork to reframe human pedestrians and the built environment from the feline perspective. The street-level camerawork that tracks roaming cats induces in the viewer an ecstatic phenomenological sensation – a feeling of exiting the bipedal human body and approximating a cat’s embodied pronograde meandering through the convoluted urban environment. In addition to the horizontal unfolding of the feline-bodied world, the camera also follows cats traversing the vertical space by climbing trees, cars, walls and any scalable architectural surface. Guided by the prowling cats, the audience experiences fluid, palpable three-dimensional routing rarely possible within our regimented human movements.
The third prominent camera technique is the extreme close-up shots of cats, vigilant or in repose. This is oftentimes used in conjunction with rack focus to center on a cat with the background human presence completely blurred, reversing the anthropocentric convention. In some cases, the low-angle camera frames human pedestrians and a cat going about their business independently in this interwoven world. Yet, contrary to the disembodied human feet that keep walking, the cat is shown to pause and look toward the camera, cuing a subject position capable of acknowledging the self-other relationship. Such camerawork not only suggests feline intentionality, but also approximates feline visual and other sensorial perspectives. In one sequence, for instance, extreme close-up shots of a cat’s intensely attentive facial features (the nose, the mouth and an eye) alternate with variously distanced shots of workers cleaning fish. To the extent that the workers’ hand movements are increasingly framed as if from the cat’s sensorial perspective, our perception of the human labor also comes to be reoriented through the cat’s acute sensitivity and agility.
Such examples abound, even in cases when close-up portrayal of cats is cut with wide-angle shots of the landscape (the sky, the ocean and the panoramic city skyline). Here we come to a reiterative visual rhetoric of this documentary, namely, the rhythmic punctuation of the densely detailed street scenes with aerial footage unfurling the colorful historic Istanbul cityscape, the ocean, and the encroaching gentrification as manifested in generic high-rises and jammed freeways. The sharp contrastive scale of the minute and the grand generated through this editing points up the ambivalent future of the human-cat-environment relations. On the one hand, the aerial footage of the shifting cityscape and landscape offers the geographical and historical context for understanding the important role that street cats have played in the local social fabric. In view of the well-composed shots of cats on the roof patrolling the territory with “superpower” (as one interviewee observes), one is tempted to believe that their sensorial experiences encompass the entire landscape. They can sniff the sunset and survey the panoramic city skyline as much as they can go subterranean into various hard-to-reach nooks and sewage tunnels. Indeed, the landscape shots might even be read as emanating from the feline consciousness. Yet on the other hand, the aerial footage of the high-rises and freeway traffic also indicates the threat of decontextualization and dislocation, as street cats and local residents face immanent loss of community and habitat. The closing shot of the sunset fading out leaves the audience struggling with the ambivalent future.
With the brooding uncertainty, Kedi reinvents the city symphony genre by pondering both its ante-industrial prehistory and its post-industrial afterlife, and by infusing rigorous editorial choreography with whimsical feline contingency.