Cats are just purr-fect

Los Angeles-based Ceyda Torun says stray cats were her best friends while she was growing up in Istanbul.
Los Angeles-based Ceyda Torun says stray cats were her best friends while she was growing up in Istanbul. PHOTO: TERMITE FILMS

Ceyda Torun, who has made a documentary on cats in Istanbul and the people who tend to them, says public spaces can be shared with the animals

When she was growing up in Istanbul during the 1980s, film- maker Ceyda Torun was often by herself.

"I was an isolated child by choice. Stray cats became my best friends. There was one main cat who came into my life. She had multiple litters of kittens and I took care of all of them," she says.

Torun, 40, spoke to The Straits Times on the telephone from the Turkish city, where she is preparing for the film's release. She now lives in Los Angeles.

"I owe the cats a great debt and I'm grateful for them," she says.

That contact with some of Istanbul's hundreds of thousands of street cats gave rise to her first feature, the documentary Kedi, now showing at The Projector.

The film records the lives of seven especially photogenic strays and the humans who tend to them, whenever the felines show up for a meal and a head-scratch.

Each cat has a personality - kingly and aloof, needy and spoilt, young and rambunctious - and Torun goes with cinematographer Charlie Wuppermann where the cats go, from crevices to homes to alleys.

There has been a long history of an easy relationship between the citizens of Turkey's largest city and its stray cats.

"The cultural attitude towards cats in the East has been more positive, compared with cities in Western Europe," she says.

In addition to greater efforts made to control the populations of strays in Western cities, cats were seen in the past as companions of women accused of witchcraft. There is a more relaxed attitude towards street cats in cities close to the Mediterranean, such as Rome, Barcelona and Madrid.

Cats also have a special place in Islamic communities, as there are references to Prophet Muhammad's interactions with cats, Torun says.

The film records how, like in Singapore, some Istanbul residents devote themselves to walking along roads looking for cats to feed. Torun says their actions reflect an appreciation of cat behaviour.

"It's hard to contain cats. They find a way to thrive outside. It's part of why we admire them so much," she says.

She understands concerns about public safety and hygiene, but makes a case for coexistence.

"I believe there is a way to make sure that public spaces are healthy and clean and for nature to exist in some way," she says.

The film shows how residents benefit from the cats that live in their midst. The animals offer a therapeutic touch of grace, poetry and a sense of wildness otherwise missing from a crowded city of almost 20 million.

"Having an encounter with a cat in a city is very much like stopping to smell the roses. There is the hustle and bustle of life, commuting from home to work. Our minds are always living in the future. Touching fur - it's a very tactile moment," she says.

•Kedi opens on Saturday at The Projector, Level 5 Golden Mile Tower, 6001 Beach Road. Tickets at $13.50. For booking and schedule, go to theprojector.sg

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 14, 2017, with the headline 'Cats are just purr-fect'. Print Edition | Subscribe