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By T.T. Stern-Enzi

Photo: Gamsiz, or ‘The Player,’ one of Istanbul’s featured cats in ‘Kedi’ Rating: Unrated; Grade: A

Every so often, I feel the need to make disclosures at the start of reviews, to own up to personal biases that might skew my takes on the subjects of certain films. In the case of “Kedi,” the new documentary from director Ceyda Torun, a first-time, full-length helmer, I entered the screening with extreme trepidation because I’m not much of a cat person. To be completely honest, I should say that when it comes to pets and such, I’m not much of an animal lover at all. I don’t begrudge others’ loving relationships with their pets; I would simply rather devote what affection I have toward the general human population.

And in my experience, I find cats to be as disinterested in me as I am with them. There is an independence in felines and an unwillingness to be bothered with seeking attention that I actually respect and admire. Why beg for love and submit to slavish devotion like dogs? Cats, I feel you. I really do. I’m not always sure humans are worth the effort anyway.

But Torun’s documentary, set in Istanbul, works some extraordinary magic, by zeroing in on the very heart of my argument. Focusing on the seemingly unknowable perspectives of the cats, he makes a case for the innate goodness of the human spirit.

Throughout this ancient and exotic city, cats enjoyed an unusual degree of privilege, allowed to roam freely without falling prey to rules of ownership or even municipal management. There is a subtle difference between cats in Istanbul and, say, cows in India, because cats are not granted sacred status. Instead, a mutual understanding exists, a respect for the animal’s seemingly inalienable rights. In actuality, though, a deeper appreciation emerges, in that nearly everyone extends a heightened level of compassion to the cats that cross their paths.

And it seems to begin with a mere touch. When a shopkeeper or a merchant at the open market spies a cat hovering at a distance, invariably a hand reaches out and then tentatively, the cat slips into the welcoming spaces between the fingers, into the warmth of the palm. Instantly, a bond forms and a desire to care pours forth. Before long, people find themselves leaving food for the cats; and in these exchanges, they start to recognize familiar character traits, a sense of individuality in the mysterious eyes and hearts of the cats.

If you love something, set it free, goes the saying, and in Istanbul, the populace adheres strictly to the notion when it comes to the city’s cats. Even when the cats return for food or affection, no one seeks to contain or domesticate the animals. They are not forced to become pets, and this decision speaks volumes for the men and women of this region. Lest we forget, ownership is a two-way street, and the resulting dependency has negative repercussions.

In this day and age, when one’s religion, the color of one’s skin, one’s nationality, or who/how one chooses to love can give rise to bans and social stigma, “Kedi” offers proof that we can shift our thinking and embrace our finer, more enlightened selves. Within the Christian precepts, we are taught to love and treat others as we would like to be treated. The ideal is rooted in the belief that each of us contains a hint or speck of the divine  and we are called to recognize and give homage to it in every exchange.

The people of Istanbul, in their interactions with their cats, have bridged the species divide. Seeing and caring for a cat, not just once, but any and every time their paths cross, acknowledges a connection that never ends. If only we could watch “Kedi” and transfer this lesson to our interactions with each other. If we could show a willingness to feed and embrace the hungry, respect freedom of movement, look out for one another without expecting any kind of return or reciprocation…

In this documentary, Torun presents a simple fantasy, but what makes it so fantastic is that it is real and within our grasp.