In Istanbul, cats don't meow. They miyav. The cat sounds the same; it's the humans who hear and see things differently, as our species seems to do when we’re halfway around the world. Take the seven feline stars of Kedi, named for the Turkish word for "cat," that documentary director Ceyda Torun picked from the city's 30,000 strays. Her cats aren't special. They're not grumpy, or floppy, or keyboard-playing, or Hitler-nosed. But in Istanbul, alley cats are celebrities on their own blocks. Bakers and fish-sellers and boutique owners breathlessly fill Torun in on Bengü's new litter, tough guy Gamsiz's war with newcomer Ginger, and boss bitch Psikopat's (a.k.a. "Psychopath") latest claws-out swipe at that cute fluff ball flirting with her man.
Torun turns her hometown's cobblestone streets into a drama that's two parts nature show, one part opera. She somehow manages to lower her camera to cat height and trot alongside them like buddies. She runs under tables and between pant-legs until the cats show her all their secrets, like a cardboard box of kittens hiding in a garage next to a crate of chains. We're used to thinking of ecosystems as exotic places like the rainforest and the Galápagos Islands, but Kedi reminds us that nature coexists in concrete cities, too. Feral cats have swapped out trees for awnings, and replaced the brain space they spent hunting birds with remembering which waiter is generous with trout. Like Liam Neeson rampaging through Istanbul in Taken 2, they've developed a particular set of skills — including a taste for bread. If I tried to feed a hotdog bun to my fat American cat, he'd call the ASPCA.
But the real culture clash is human. Here, we think stray cats are sad. Parents shoo their children from stroking them, especially ones as dirty as these. Yet to the people of Istanbul, a stray is a symbol of liberation. As Torun insists, "They live without a master." And they act like it. These cats don't run from dogs or cower from people. Fight a seagull for fish? No problem. Fifty seagulls? That's different. Otherwise, these streets are theirs. "She does as she wishes," swoons a muscular-looking man of matted, imperious Psikopat. "She never compromises her freedom."
The cats of Kedi aren't asking to be rescued. They act like equal partners on the block; they’re not property. There's mutual respect, a bond both subtle and surreal. Homeless cats knock on windows for a snack, and, startlingly, people welcome them in. When they walk down the street, everyone scratches their ears. When they're sick, people generously take them to the veterinarian just because it's the right thing to do. "We all have running tabs at the vet," shrugs a friendly baker. Love is abundant. Ownership, however, is selfish. Says one hipster girl, "I think it's wrong to trap them in a house just so we can pet them." (Please don't tell her my lazy indoor dude only goes outside on a leash.) So when the Turkish Parliament pledged to get rid of strays, thousands of protesters took to the streets.
I checked out Kedi to get a good look at some foreign cats. Instead, I kept thinking about humans like me who grew up certain that the best way to care for an animal is to trap it within four walls and make it obey our rules instead of its own. What makes Turkish mammals — both Homo sapiens and Felis catus — so different from Americans? Torun doesn't talk about it. She just wants to make an art-house charmer. Her focus is strictly feline; the humans are only there to offer coffee-mug platitudes like, "People who don't love animals can't love people either," and "Dogs think we are god, cats know we're middlemen."
Yet what Kedi could have mentioned is that in the Muslim world, cat madness is a mindset that goes back 1,400 years. The prophet Muhammad had his own cat, named Muezza, that he doted on so much that when he found her sleeping on his prayer robe, he cut off the sleeve instead of disturbing her nap. And he wasn't alone. Muhammad hung out with a believer named Abu Hurayrah, whose name literally means "father of kittens." Legend has it that one day, Abu Hurayrah's cat saved Muhammad from a deadly snake. In return, the holy man stroked her forehead and back, leaving behind the "M" marking on most tabbies, and gracing all felines with the ability to land on their feet.
There's a local saying: “If you kill a cat, you need to build a mosque to be forgiven by God.” Today, it's impossible to put in practice in a city that's increasingly crowded with high-rises that, as Torun frets, are pushing cats out of their turf. But one imam, Mustafa Efe, became an internet darling when he opened his red-carpeted mosque to strays. Unlike dogs, who have it rough on the streets, Islamic tradition considers cats clean enough to share holy water. Really, though, humans should selflessly give alley cats their own drink station, like the barrel Kedi discovers that warns, "If you don't want to be desperate for water in the next life, don't touch these cups."
The Bible, however, mentions cats only once, as a plague on false gods who will suffer "bats and swallows alight[ing] on their bodies and heads — any bird, and cats as well." They're not even a main plague, just an afterthought. While Muhammad was condemning an abusive cat owner to hell, European Christians were accusing cats of being witches and burning them on bonfires for revenge, or just for fun. As recently as 17th-century France, Louis XIV danced around a sack full of flaming cats because he thought their death throes were hilarious. Western philosophers like Descartes assured people that animals had no souls — their screams were purely mechanical. And so villagers scooped up guilt-free handfuls of cat ash and scattered them around their home for good luck. They'd need it. The ghost cats got their revenge by allowing rats to brazenly spread the black plague.
Kedi doesn't mention that, either. Instead, there's an eerie shot of the strays playing in an overgrown graveyard. Later, another man says that his cat obsession saved his life after a nervous breakdown. Therapy didn't do much. But walking the sidewalks every night with two big bags of meat has given him meaning. "Doing this cured me," he nods. So while Torun would rather stay adorable than intellectual, her ideas about autonomy and interdependence lurk beneath the surface, like her underground night-vision shot of a mouse escaping restaurant bouncer Aslan Parçasi's grimy claws.
What lingers is Kedi’s awareness that the city is alive. For every violinist on a street corner, there's a kitten somberly judging their skill. When Torun pans across the rooftops, we hear hundreds of invisible birds. Humans don't own this planet, even though we act like we do. Just ask the three nervy cats who crashed Turkey's G20 international economic summit in 2015. Reporters were there to pay attention to Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin, but the strays who ran across the stage grabbed their headlines. Remember, mankind: you're sharing this world.