How Internet Cat Videos Paved the Way for Oscar Contender ‘Kedi’

Oscar Wrap Magazine: Ceyda Torun says her documentary about the cats of Istanbul was “an ongoing process of discovery”

This interview about “Kedi” first appeared in the Race Begins issue of TheWrap’s Oscar magazine.

Some of the most fascinating characters in this year’s Oscar-contending documentaries aren’t even human. Ceyda Torun’s “Kedi,” for instance, is a look at some of the street cats who roam free in Istanbul, a phenomenon that has been taking place for centuries – and its feline stars Bengu, Deniz, Duman and more are as indelible as any people you’ll meet in 2017’s non-fiction films.

“Growing up in Turkey, we had two TV channels when I was a kid,” Torun told TheWrap. “On Sundays they would show a documentary and a Disney movie.” “Kedi,”in a way, is her version of a mixture of both.

Why did you want to make a movie on this subject?
I never really lost touch with Turkey. I lived there until I was 11, until we moved because my stepfather was the director of UNICEF in the Middle East. But when we first moved and I was a kid, it was an important thing to my mom that we always returned at least twice a year.

Every time I went back for the summer, so much would have changed – big street changes, structural changes. The only thing that remained constant and familiar to me were the street cats. When we put together a film production company for a slate of films, we thought we’d like to do a documentary set in Istanbul with cats, but we didn’t quite know what it was. It wasn’t until we had this amazing online cat renaissance, all the cat videos that people watched online, when I was able to even conceive that it could work.

And when we were shooting the movie, every film crew that we bumped into in Istanbul said, “We always wanted to do something with cats!”

How did you get from “let’s make a movie about the cats of Istanbul” to figuring out exactly what that movie would be?
It was an ongoing process of discovery. We had an idea of interviewing reputable people who had special relationships to cats, so we went out in the summer of 2013. And amidst the tear gas clouds of the Gezi Park protests, we filmed the cats, talked to people and randomly struck up conversations thinking we could do a straightforward nature documentary.

Then we realized that what people had to say about cats was profound and poetic and philosophical. I realized that was the fastest way to strike up intimate conversations with strangers — cats were the real icebreaker.

When we came back, we edited together an online teaser, which also went viral and proved we were on the right track. We were able to get funding because of that video.

And before we went back the following summer, we had researchers who did a kind of street casting. They had leads on 35 cats, but when we were able to start filming we were only able to find 19 of them.

I imagine that cats don’t care what time it says on the call sheet.
Absolutely. There were plenty of times that we would show up in a location and have to sit and drink tea for an hour and wait for the cats. The humans of the cats were our informants — we would call and visit on a regular basis to check on the cat characters, or they would show up and do nothing, or they wouldn’t show up at all. But it was nice that I could take that time to bond with the humans.

So how’d you decide which cats made the cut?
We had 10 or 11 different stories that seemed to highlight different themes about how we live together. It was very much created in the edit. We wanted to convey a sense of place, the emotion of being with these cats, and the ordering of the cat stories was the most challenging part.

Following the cats with your cameras must have been an additional challenge.
My producing partner and cinematographer, Charlie Wuppermann, said, “I would love to be at their level and shoot them like we shoot humans.” And he devised this rig where he could place the camera on a stick and have focus control on a handle, and it would be at shoulder height of the cats. The cats seemed to like us following them, and we would do an elaborate dance around them.

We tried to think, “How would National Geographic do this?” And, “How can we do that on a budget?”

Brooklynn Prince, OscarWrap The Race Begins Cover