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Cat Stories

Cat Stories. 2019. Cobos Films/KRO-NCRV. Directed by Carmen Cobos. Spain/Netherlands.

Cat Stories is a documentary that asks, what makes a cat lover love cats?  Director Carmen Cobos, from a region in Spain where keeping domestic cats is rare, confesses a lack of affinity for cats.  Indeed, she finds the phenomenon puzzling.  In order to discover whether she might understand, or perhaps even acquire felinophilia, Carmen finds work as a cat sitter.   This position finds her caring for cats who represent a constellation of arrangements.  She later interviews the human elements: among them a woman with two mischievous kittens who insist on missing their litter box, an older man whose cat draws not insignificant blood from his hands, a woman who fosters a pregnant cat and her kittens, and a woman who breeds white Siamese cats in defiance of current breed standards.  Also memorable is a reclusive black cat whose name, Poes (cat in Dutch), suggests the evasion of an intimate human-cat relationship.  The sample itself reads as both random and intentional, offering to cover much of the universe of domestic cat keeping in an urban setting.

Cat Stories unveils its characters in parallel, a structure that feels intimate for short moments but more abstract and thematic overall.  The most recent plot comparison is probably Kedi (2017), but the filmmakers there remain offscreen and the predominantly exterior setting feels more liberated than the interior world of Cat Stories.  By the end, the Kedi cats and their caretakers feel closer and more free.  The Kedi cats seem to melt into Instanbul, while the cats of Cat Stories feel absorbed by Amsterdam.  The moments depicted in Cat Stories reflect the duties of cat sitting: cleaning litter boxes, filling food and water bowls, cleaning beyond litter boxes, etc.  The plot also breaks from this structure to visit a cat show, the veterinarian, a breeding session, an animal shelter, and related environs.  The overwhelming locale however, is the Amsterdam home, which is sometimes jokingly described as postage-stamp or doll-house, and a feeling of claustrophobia haunts some frames.  Absent here are feline acrobatic feats, unless we count wrestling, concealment, or fitting inside carriers, which emphasize the enclosure and manipulation of the cats.

The central character in Cat Stories is director Cobos, and her transformation from agnostic into cat convert is incomplete; near the end of the film she expresses sympathy for one human’s love for her cat but this falls short of feeling for a cat directly.  An implication is that love of cats is acquired early in life rather than later; it might be too late for Carmen.  It may also be that this cat-human sample nudges toward the equivocal, as the above catalog suggests.  In one cat story, a mother extols her love for her cat while her human daughter looks on blankly, suppressing her own mixed emotions about the implicit comparison.  Several of the human subjects articulate descriptions of their felinophilia, but much of this was lost on me as my Dutch is not expert.  The imagery is unmistakably equivocal, however, in its anthropological preservation of a merely superficial domestic tranquility.  Such are not the moments that inspire felinophilia and director Cobos seems unmoved from her initial bewilderment about why humans love cats.  The chief achievement of Cat Stories and director Cobos is retaining these moments without succumbing to the temptation woven by the testimony of each participant.  The love of cats ultimately evades explanation and the motifs of human hands manipulating cats implicitly question its basis.  Do we love them only after we shape them to fit our interests?

Few moments address this question as acutely as the climax of Cat Stories, which crosscuts the challenge of finding adoptive homes for the kittens born of the abandoned cat with the luxury that awaits the kittens born of the intentionally bred white Siamese.  The first get web pages and flyers while the second get a passport and a plane ride.  The comparison suggests that any competition for homes is theoretical only, with each cat serving different modes of felinophilia, one with commodification and one without.  The cat foster parent accepts another pregnant cat into her home and we can presume that the Siamese will breed again.  Stories about animals, including cats, remain rich sources for contemplating the complexity of human-animal relationships in all of their complexity, from the most selfless to the most self-absorbed; Cat Stories deftly opens a window for us to survey this spectrum.

References:

Torun, C. (2017). Kedi. Oscilloscope Pictures. Turkey / USA.

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