BREATHING SPACE

The film that proves everything cat lovers already know

After watching Kedi, the documentary about Istanbul's street cats, Marisa Bate reflects on the healing power of cats

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By Marisa Bate on

When I was a little girl, our cat TJ would have a magical ability to know when I was sad or upset.

She’d find me and come and sit with me, purring with a comforting knowledge that everything would be OK. Her warm body perched next to me, looking like a wise old owl, TJ didn't need to use words to make me feel better.

 She’d sit near me, paws crossed, listening to all my news, like a proud aunt – or so it seemed. I always expected her to be nodding along, suggesting we open another bottle…

Then came Rosie, whom my 10-year-old self named after the little girl in Shirley Hughes' Alfie books. And, like a Shirley Hughes drawing, Rosie took on a huge character. By the end of her life, I’d arrive in Mum’s kitchen on a Friday night and in she’d trot, her back legs stiffer than they used to be. She’d sit near me, paws crossed, listening to all my news, like a proud aunt – or so it seemed. I always expected her to be nodding along, suggesting we open another bottle…

The presence of cats has always been calming (except that time I looked after my friend’s kitten, which involved 4am wake-up miaows alarmingly close to my face). Over the years, they’ve been silent friends – non-judgemental, excellent listeners (to non-cat people, I realise I might sound mad, but trust me, this is the tip of the iceberg). Their small bodies, their inquisitive eyes, their hushed purring has always been a balm for all the chaos that exists around them. And, at the same time, I’ve always loved their independence – cats are very much their own cat. They call the shots and you need them way more than they need you. Just like the handsome singer in a band, their aloof indifference makes their affection even more powerful.

The relationship between cats and humans is played out particularly beautifully in the Turkish film Kedi – which is basically every cat lover’s very own Woody Allen classic, just without the uncomfortable feelings around the director and city of New York. The documentary, which is still on at cinemas and was the talk of festivals earlier in the year,  follows seven of Istanbul’s street cats. They all have different personalities and names and traits, yet they all delight in the same ways – to a cat lover, at least: the strut of the four paws, the flick of the tail, the tilt of the head, the ability to obtain food from humans at all times, the look of embarrassment when they trip. I smiled for 60 minutes straight.

But this isn’t just humans cooing over cats. The Istanbul street cats tell the story of a city facing the brutal reality of a modernising world that is leaving them behind; the fallout of globalisation that is ever dividing people and politics; a city where, as you see in the film, children are sent to beg for money while their mother plays instruments; a city where some people have nothing, but what they do have they share with the stray cats.

One man discovered a litter of abandoned kittens, who were magically next to a wallet filled with the exact amount of money to fix his fishing boat – his livelihood. This man believed it was a holy sign. And for many people in Istanbul, it seemed the love of the cats made them feel as if God hadn’t forgotten them – even if it felt like the rest of the world had. And the struggle of the cats – to feed their young, to stay alive, to move around, out of danger, to find somewhere safe and warm, echoed the lives of the humans they lived alongside. In Istanbul, the street cats aren’t pests – they are neighbours, they are community, they are there to be looked after and loved, and in return they will love you back.

In Kedi, the cats heal. They give humans hope and companionship and love and a reason to laugh. To some, they even give meaning and purpose. One man says that everyone has huge vet bills, looking after the cats who barge into their lives, but it’s all on a tab that the vets let go unpaid. Everyone knows the cats are essential – one way or another.

I’m aware that, as a society, we can be more sympathetic to animals than humans. In this country, more people donate to a donkey shelter than to women’s shelters. Something has gone wrong.

But these cats are making human’s lives better, in small and big ways. Just like the magnificent cats I’ve had in my life. And you don’t need to be a cat lover to see that’s amazing.

@marisajbate

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