The following review is written by Ilker Hepkaner, a PhD candidate in NYU’s Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies Department. His dissertation research focuses on the identification of Jews from Turkey in Israel through the lens of politics of space, heritage, and visual culture. He is also working on the historiography, and visual representation of religious minorities in Turkey.
When I was learning English as a child in Turkey, the first idiom I, like many others around the world, learned was “It’s raining cats and dogs.” After our laughter subsided, my teacher used this idiom to show us that learning the language was going to be difficult. Sometimes we use seemingly unrelated images to discuss ideas that can’t be expressed in any other way.
In the last few years, dogs and cats have been doing a similar thing within documentary features focusing on modern Turkey. Two filmmakers have pointed their cameras at the street cats and dogs of Istanbul in order to explore questions much bigger than the lives of animals and their relations with humans. Andrea Luka Zimmerman’s film essay Taşkafa: Stories of the Street (2013) and Ceyda Torun’s documentary Kedi a.k.a. Nine Lives: Cats in Istanbul (2016), with their positive and protective outlook for the furry inhabitants of the city, ask big questions about the past and the present, and about living together as humans and animals in the same city.
Both films have been screened at multiple film festivals around the world, and although three years apart from each other – which can be a long time in the Turkish public sphere — they tell very similar stories about human-animal relations in Istanbul. On the surface, the dogs’ and cats’ amicability and beautiful poses invite the audience to think more about what being an animal in Istanbul – and thus a human on earth – means. But within the context of the highly censored environment of contemporary Turkey, these films end up making bold statements on the issues of contested heritage and harmonious coexistence. And even though both films’ cameras circulate only within Istanbul’s touristic neighborhoods, many of the issues discussed in the films can be considered within the larger framework of public discourse in Turkey’s urban and rural areas.
Zimmerman’s Taşkafa explores a number of dogs’ lives and their interactions with dog-loving inhabitants on İstanbul’s European side and islands. As the camera follows the dogs and collects the testimonies of the humans around them, the late art critic John Berger reads excerpts from his novel King—which gives the audience room to ponder on their place on earth along with other living beings, sharing one common fate. In Zimmerman’s own words, the film also “seeks to portray and embody the spirit of protest, in an enduring solidarity with the events it features at its close (mass demonstrations from autumn 2012, opposing the latest municipal proposals to clear the city of its street animals and anticipating the much more internationally visible 2013 assemblies).”
In addition to animal rights, Taşkafa shows how the concept of mahalle, or close-knit communities centered around a particular neighborhood, is also under danger—a topic that did not evade the attention of academics in Istanbul. With the proliferation of gated communities and the rapid gentrification of scenic neighborhoods in Istanbul, the social structures of mahalles have drastically changed due to the plight of their long-time inhabitants or the influx of new locals. Taşkafa explores how animals are adapting to this rapidly changing social landscape.
The film also touches on the issue of the 1910 Exile of Istanbul’s Dogs by the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), which still haunts the city’s inhabitants today. In 1908, The CUP stripped Abdulhamit II from his powers and established their own authoritarian regime under which the Ottoman Empire went into World War I, and ultimately collapsed. The CUP was responsible for the failures of the WWI, and one of its gravest chapters, the Armenian Genocide. Although the CUP was disbanded and its leaders were either exiled or assassinated, most of the party members joined the ranks of the founders of the Republic. So in later official historiographical accounts, it was the Sultanate that was blamed for the failures of the Empire in its last decades. Besides, the Armenian Genocide was completely erased from the official narratives, and the Turkish government to this day insists on denying the reality of the Genocide, and does what it can to suppress that memory.
While interviewing people about the 1910 Exile, Taşkafa shows how people “remember” this event as something “the Sultan” did—just as they remember other events that led to the Empire’s collapse—although it was CUP members who committed this atrocity. Such distortion of memory clears CUP members of culpability and puts the blame on Mehmed V. By discussing this topic as “a genocide,” Taşkafa invites the audience to check their memory of the other atrocities of the CUP, for instance of another event on which Istanbul keeps its silence to this day—the Armenian Genocide.
Torun’s Kedi is less politically charged, at least on the surface. It follows nine cats and the humans around them in the scenic neighborhoods of Cihangir, Samatya, and Nişantaşı as well as the city’s less-filmed spaces such as the organic bazaar in Beylikdüzü. Beautiful airborne images of Istanbul that look like they belong in a tourism commercial act appear intermittently between the cats’ cute poses and stories. In Torun’s chase of the furry inhabitants of the city, each cat’s particularities are narrated in a way that asks larger questions about devotion, determination, love for others, God-human relations, territorialization, and pain. Torun seems to have paid attention to issues of class—she draws her examples from various walks of life by representing cats not only from luxury restaurants and Cihangir streets but also from industrial areas or fisherman barracks on the seaside. But in general Kedi avoids direct discussion of social and political problems in the city.
However, at the end, the film poses a major question about how humans can live together despite their differences as well as what we can learn from cats on this topic. Despite the lack of direct political discussions, Turkish President Erdogan’s name makes a cameo in the form of stenciled graffiti that reads “Erdo-gone” along with “Mashallah Inshallah,” famous Arabic phrases that are respectively used to express joy, and appreciation for something in the past, and for wishing on God’s will for something in the future—and are often misinterpreted as markers of Middle Eastern fatalism. When used in the film, however, the juxtaposition of these phrases express a willingness to see Erdogan “gone” after years of his insistent rule. The film’s silent wish upon Erdogan’s political future proves that the political is both difficult to express and impossible to suppress in Turkey’s visual culture, even though it is strictly surveyed amid the state’s harsh crackdown on the dissident journalists, the alternative media, and the opposition.
Both films ask larger questions than how humans and animals live in today’s Istanbul and face similar problems of violence, displacement, dispossession, and betrayal. While portraying heartwarming relations between animals and humans in Turkey and giving hopeful answers, the films are at times over-romanticized. Keeping the animals on the street and resisting the systematic efforts to eradicate them is a continuous struggle. Although Taşkafa touches on the issue, Kedi’s overtly romanticizing portrayal of Istanbul as a highly favorable environment for cats (and street animals) ignores the political struggle of various animal rights activists who fight to keep the city that way. In the last years, a consortium of animal rights activists in Istanbul have focussed their efforts on stopping the inhumane operations of the Kısırkaya Shelter. While the Hayvan Haklarını Koruma ve ve Geliştirme Derneği (HAGİD) (Association for Protecting and Improving Animal Rights) struggled to have this shelter shut down through numerous court orders, other animal rights activists protested against the shelter’s inhumane treatment of animals on the streets and took the issue to the parliament. There is also Hayvan Hakları İzleme Merkezi (HAKIM) (Center of Monitoring Animal Rights), which publishes monthly reports on the animal cruelty on the streets of Turkey and organizes advocacy and resistance events on multiple fronts, such as the parliament, local governments, media, and the streets.
Kedi strikes the right tone in depicting the respect and love street animals receive from most of the people in Turkey. The filmmaker indeed wanted to show the exceptionality of this relationship. However, imagery of human-animal relations in Turkey is not, unfortunately, always as cute as the striking visuals in Kedi. Lately, people have been asking similar questions about human and animal lives through visuals on the other end of the spectrum. Animal cruelty news get their share on all media, regardless of political inclination. In the meticulously surveyed and censored public domain in Turkey in which the journalist is always encouraged to portray a happy image of the country, animal cruelty visuals unite people in asking the apparent question: “What went wrong in our society?” When a dog fell into a well and his rescue made the headlines recently, journalist Irfan Aktar even asked his readers if the plight of the dog symbolized how people critical to the government in Turkey felt trapped, as if at the bottom of a well.
This brings me to my final point: What has happened in the last few years in Turkey that we need to analyze animals in order to understand ourselves? In order to ask questions about forgotten genocides and impossible coexistence, why do we have to turn our cameras to animals? Has the silencing been so powerful that now we think that if we have dogs and cats speak for us, we will be fine? And in the upcoming months, which will be dominated by the Constitutional Referendum solidifying or shaking of Erdogan’s one-man regime, perhaps we are going to turn to other street animals to help us in talking with each other—maybe it will be the seagulls’ and doves’ turn, or rats and crows will capture the screen.