One of the stars of Kedi (Oscilloscope Laboratories)

Ever since we’ve began domesticating cats thousands of years ago, humans have sat back and marveled at the weird behavior of our cute and aggressive feline friends. It’s no wonder that cat videos are so popular. If you search for them on YouTube, you’ll find many have more than 119 million views each. Also, for the past four years, audiences have gathered in Minneapolis for the Internet Cat Video Festival, where thousands of fans come out to participate in the communal delight of cat watching. If that sounds like an ideal way to spend an evening, you will no doubt get a lot out of this documentary about cats in Istanbul. However, if you’re a cat agnostic, the film probably amounts to torture. The film’s premise marks a very clear line in the sand: You should know already whether or not you will love or hate this movie.

The filmmakers paint the Turkish metropolis as either a cat lover’s paradise or a cat hater’s hell. The Turks have a tradition that goes back thousands of years of letting the cats (or “kedi”) roam free. As a result, there are hundreds of thousands of kitties coexisting with city dwellers. Collectively, the humans take care of the cats, feeding them, and giving them love, without claiming ownership of them. The movie does not shame Western audience who hold their pets captive inside their homes; it merely provides a window into a different way of interacting with these animals, suggesting a blissed-out serenity that comes from this intimate but independent arrangement.

The film highlights seven distinct cats. There’s Duman, a cat of very particular tastes and a favorite at the local gourmet deli where he dines on Manchego cheese and smoked meats. Psikopat, described as the “neighborhood psychopath,” has a male companion cat that she rules with an iron paw. If he’s ever seen with another female, Psikopat starts an epic fight worthy of a David Attenborough-narrated nature documentary. Another sequence that gets the heart racing involves Aslan Parçasi, who helps out a high-class seafood restaurant by taking care of its rodent problem. The film follows the hunter into the sewers as he hunts his prey, providing viewers the opportunity to see the secret world beneath the surface.

Just by virtue of Turkey being a majority Muslim country, this seemingly innocuous movie can be viewed as a political statement as well. Of course, the film is not just about the cats but also their caretakers, who reveal the various hardships they have endured throughout their lives and the healing powers of the companionship these cats have brought. For animal lovers everywhere, these testimonies will ring true, and it is impossible not to empathize with these people. In a time when the White House has an agenda to demonize the region, this film can be a Trojan horse of understanding—unless, of course, you don’t like cats.

Directed by Ceyda Torun
Released by Oscilloscope Laboratories
Turkish with English subtitles
Turkey/USA. 79 min. Not rated