The vibe one gets from the conversation around Kedi - not least because there are obvious economic advantages to the distributor in letting this vibe happen - is that it's basically a feature-length version of a cute cat video on YouTube. To be entirely fair, if you're the kind of person prone to spending 80 minutes on YouTube watching cats, the pleasure you get from that act is undoubtedly similar to the pleasure you'd get from Kedi, and if you're not that kind of person, I pity your blackened soul.

Regardless of all that, while the film has added appeal to us cat fanciers, that's not really what it's about. In fact, the film ends up being a rather surprising late addition to the noble genre of the city symphony, the genre of Manhatta and Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, and so many of the other best documentaries of the 1920s. The form petered out when sound came along, as it had to almost of necessity, but every now and then you'll get a fair analogue like this, where a filmmaker (here, director Ceyda Torun) trains her sights on a city (here, Istanbul), and attempts to capture something its character by letting the camera simply suck up the sights and people milling around. Kedi's not a perfect fit - it has talking head interviews of a sort, though none of the interviewees seem to be giving Torun their full attention, what with jobs to handle and everything - but the spirit is in place, giving us a synoptic vision of Istanbul as filtered through one of that ancient city's most unique traits, the enormous population of quasi-domestic cats roaming its streets, and the entranced humans who find themselves caring for the animals.

Kedi - the title is the Turkish word for "cat" - is not quite any of the things you'd suppose it is: not quite a bunch of funny cat footage, not quite a modern day city symphony, not quite a story of people & not quite a story of animals. It dabbles in all of the above, placing onto the material an unforced structure that doesn't really reveal itself until most of the way through the film. And even then, it's hardly schematic or narrative, or anything; there's just a retrospective sense that we've sort of moved in a general direction through Istanbul, picking up sights and sounds along the way. If there's any kind of division within the film, it's generated by the occasional shifts to an aerial camera, floating above the city like an indifferent angel, recalling the footage in a very different modern variant on the city symphony, Koyaanisqatsi (were I shameless and awful, this is where I'd work in a KoyaanisCATsi joke).

Kedi is built around a series of... episodes, though that word has the wrong connotations. What happens is this: we settle down at some location that represents an aspect of the economic and/or social life of the city (a fish market, a neighborhood restaurant, a dock), and we learn about one or more of the cats who has made that location their home. This happens, in part, through some very nimble cat-level cinematography by Alp Korfali and Charlie Wuppermann, pushing into the quiet, hidden corners where the cats go to be away from prying human eyes (raising the question of how the footage was gotten, and whether any of it was staged; but ask the nearest cat owner if the animals would be particularly cooperative in faking documentary scenes, and their derisive laughter should tell you all you need to know). But it also happens through interviews with the people in those same spaces, whose stories about the cats reveal at least as much about how people conceive of animals as how the animals conceive of themselves.

So we've got, then, a film that tells three stories, more or less: the stories of the cats of Istanbul, the stories of the humans of Istanbul, and the stories of the places of Istanbul. I'm not sure that this all ends up accumulating into any one thing overall, and that's not a problem. Kedi is a big of a grab bag of fascinating odds and ends, giving us by turns a sense of Istanbul's history and its present, showing interesting snippets of how very ordinary lives operate at a very ordinary moment, and of course showcasing a whole damn lot of terribly photogenic animals. Some of it's adorable - a cat is described as entreating for entrance into a human home by sitting in profile with his paw up as though he's gently knocking on the door, and sure enough, editor Mo Stoebe is certain to cut to just exactly that pose. Some of it is a reminder that cats, unlike dogs, remain captivatingly alien and undomestic, as in the shots of the animals casually scaling up and down trees and the walls of houses. A lot of it is simply neat, footage of cats doing what cats do by the hundreds of thousands every day, generally unnoticed: the first cat in the film takes a meandering tour down the streets, lugging a chunk of food the size of her head to go feed her kittens.

The most interesting parts of the film, though, I would wager are the places where it glances at the relationship between people and our companion animals. The cats in Kedi are all what you'd call "strays", not that that word (nor "feral") has anything like the normal meaning in the Istanbul context, but they're still discussed by the human interviewees as basically like pets. And there's enough working to defamiliarize the material in Kedi - the gliding score, by Kira Fontana; the unexpected angles and close-in footage; the subtitles, I am tempted to say, though of course that's not something that's meant to be part of the experience - that it becomes really noticeable how the humans are thinking about the cats, and what that tells us about the people, and how people the world over try to insist a form of honorary personhood onto animals that really just aren't persons. But it's not even that big of a thing; it can be as simple as the moment when a man, noted for his attempts to save local cats, is interrupted right in the middle of an interview with an unconscious kitten. The point is, Kedi is a fairly marvelous and uncommon portrait of the weird way in which people feel more honest and open and unguarded around pets, and for all its strange and delightful little loose ends about Istanbul, cats, and the rest, I feel like the film's most indelible aspect is its examination of the strange necessity of the human-animal bond.