If you love something, you let it go. Cat people understand this intuitively. You never quite possess a cat, and the sooner you acknowledge that, the better. Cats will chase the tinfoil ball, if they are in the mood, but they will almost certainly not bring it back. We forgive them for this because there is no other option.
I have no trouble linking cats to the divine. Chris Marker’s transcendent short film of a sleeping cat is nothing if not an image of Nirvana, pure being, whatever you want to call it. The look in a cat’s eye guides us toward an idea of freedom, as Claude Lévi-Strauss suggested. Having spent a lifetime studying the structures of ancient societies, the French anthropologist understood well the prison cell into which technological man had locked himself. Only at rare moments, Lévi-Strauss posits near the end of Tristes Tropiques, do we see beyond this cell. One of those is “in the brief glance, heavy with patience, serenity and mutual forgiveness, that, through some involuntary understanding, one can sometimes exchange with a cat.”
To watch films of cats (or even merely videos of them) may not carry the same “serenity” as an exchanged glance—and yet it can be, I propose, a road to a better place. Don’t believe me? Go see Kedi, opening February 10 in New York. Directed by Ceyda Torun, an LA-based filmmaker who grew up in Istanbul, it’s a feature-length documentary that profiles, if that’s the right word, seven alley cats in Istanbul. Why Istanbul? Hundreds of thousands of cats roam its streets, a feral run in the stocking fabric of the age-old Turkish metropolis. The cats are said to have arrived centuries ago, as rat catchers on European boats. But the Ottoman sewers gave them plenty of vermin to feast on, too, and since that time they’ve been a fixture, especially in the cat-obsessed neighborhood of Cihangir, where much of Kedi takes place. Stray cats are as everyday a phenomenon for some Istanbullus as rats are for New Yorkers. Unlike New York’s rats, though, they have featured positively in state visits. I’m referring to an incident (confirmed by the Wall Street Journal) in which President Obama, strolling through the Hagia Sophia with President Erdogan eight years ago, stopped to stroke one of the feline inhabitants of the world-famous mosque.
Whether the alley cats of Istanbul will be around much longer is apparently an open question. Torun, the director, has noted in an interview that they now make do with far less green space than they enjoyed during her seventies childhood, and the film refers several times, albeit vaguely, to the threat of mass cat removal. And yet government proposals to relocate the city’s strays to specially designated “habitat parks” have met with spirited resistance.
Modernizers no doubt see free-roaming cats as the sort of backward quirk standing in the way of EU membership. But to their supporters, the cats are objects of fierce affection.
“The love of animals is a different kind of love,” as one devotee in Kedi puts it. And the love of an animal that is not a pet—that sleeps elsewhere and comes and goes of its own accord—is different, too. To be sure, the charmed observers in Kedi project personality traits onto the cats, as people always have. One woman explains that her favorite stray cat is an image of classic femininity, the type you see in movies. Erotic notes creep in, too: another woman has a regular feline caller who’s a rough, alpha type. Of all the toms who come to the glass door to her terrace, he’s the only one who sits in profile; he’s more persistent than the others, she notes approvingly, and sometimes, he spends the night. A man introduces us to a female cat whose nickname is Psychopath. We see her hunched in attack mode, making ungodly noises to keep rivals at bay. Even so, you do wonder if this café regular has simply chosen to view her, rather ungenerously, as the archetypal crazy female. But he watches Psychopath bully her male companions with pure delight. “She does what she wants,” he says. “That’s very important to me.”
Unowned cats present themselves most openly when they want to be fed. They don’t treat it as begging, really. It’s the price of admission to the cat show. This failure to genuflect, even if it’s a matter mostly of appearances, is essential. “Dogs think people are gods, but cats don’t,” a wise cat person declares in voice-over. “They know better.”
In his seminal essay “Why Look At Animals?,” the late John Berger examines how in earlier eras, in rural places in particular, the “parallel lives” of animals suggested answers to essential questions: Where do we come from? Which character traits do we value? He compared this intimate, intertwined relationship with its successor, which arrived with the industrial age. Animals, he wrote, had been “emptied of experience and secrets.” They exist now not as parallel lives at all, but as subjects, mirrors, and resources. There’s a desperation behind our micromanaged treatment of pets and livestock; it’s maybe the ultimate indicator of our loneliness as a species. Even beloved pets are “part of that universal but personal withdrawal into the private small family unit,” Berger wrote, and as such inevitably become “creatures of their owner’s way of life.”
In Kedi, this nostalgia for animal autonomy dovetails with vague longings for old Istanbul. Both seem a little wilder and more graceful than the present. One cat in the film arrives every day at a fancy sandwich shop for a meal of Emmental cheese and smoked turkey. He never comes in; he’s too polite for that. But he’ll make his desires known by pawing furiously at the window, as though treading water to save his life. The employees are supremely charmed by this. “Beneath that aristocratic appearance there is still a street kid,” one of them observes.
A twenty-first-century city planner no doubt prefers a cat with its papers in order and a predictable roof over its head. The cats that make a home of the streets, squeezing through holes in the walls and huddling under café tables, introduce an anxiously chaotic element into the urban space. They mate, defecate, and sometimes kill one another as they please.
Twelve years ago, I lived for a year in Athens, Greece, where the downtown was full of stray dogs. I never felt any real inclination to watch them. Stray cats are hardly the same thing. Their presence, I would argue, is more civilizing than the alternative. They go as low as they need to for survival—that’s the street kid in them. But they have the other persona, too, and they scamper up trees and awnings and inhabit eaves and terra-cotta rooftops in a way that no other terrestrial creature does. A man in the film compares them to the superheroes he loved as a kid: the nine lives, the air of assuredness, the agility. “If only we could land on all fours,” he laments. “We land on two, and they snap like twigs.” The cats have adapted to the vertical orientation of the city in a way that the brittle humans who built it haven’t. Istanbul is lucky to be able to watch and admire them, for however long as they agree to keep letting them go.
Darrell Hartman is editor and cofounder of the website Jungles in Paris. His writing has appeared in Granta, Guernica, and the Wall Street Journal, among others.