Like a cat that sneaks up stealthily behind you, no one saw the success of Kedi coming.

“In the beginning all the festivals that we were applying to were turning us down,” recalls Ceyda Torun, director of the documentary about the felines of Istanbul. “Sales agents were saying, ‘We don’t know how to sell this film.’”

Despite the initially skeptical reception, Kedi would go on to become one of the biggest doc hits of the year, collecting $2.8 million at the box office in North America alone.

“We had huge success also in Australia and the Netherlands…Germany,” Torun tells Deadline. “It’s very surprising but it’s also very satisfying to see that a film like this can resonate and do well.”

Audiences and critics alike responded to the story of the tens of thousands of street cats that roam the city, as they have for millennia, interacting with humans in a mostly harmonious fashion. Deadline’s Pete Hammond called the film a “remarkable cinematic triumph” in his review back in February. Kedi won Best First Documentary at the recent Critics’ Choice Documentary Awards and has qualified for Oscar consideration.

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If Torun herself had faith in the film’s appeal it’s probably because her relationship with Istanbul and its cats goes back so far. She grew up there before coming to the U.S. at age 13, and as a small child became attached to a street cat she named Boncuk—the Turkish word for “button”.

“She had a beautiful gray overcoat and a white chest and these piercing green-blue eyes. Very regal,” the director remembers. In many ways it was as if she chose me to be her witness to her life and be the sort of servant of bringing milk and salamis and things like that…She would go and live her life and I would follow her and see where she was going…She left a really big mark in my psyche, I think.”

To make Kedi, Torun and a group of researchers roamed the city themselves, in search of characters.

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“We had local field producers walking the streets asking people, trying to find cat stories,” she recalls.

Torun eventually settled on a select group of cats to focus on, each with a distinct personality. Among them is Gamsiz, described as the “boss of his street”; Duman, who delightfully paws at a restaurant window (but never deigns to enter) in hopes of receiving a snack; Sari, described as a hustler who “begs, steals and forages,” and Psikopat, whose name translates to “psychopath”—an indication of her fearsome nature.

Cinematographers Alp Korfali and Charlie Wuppermann captured footage of these and other felines as they attended to their kittens, dozed atop restaurant awnings, patrolled subterranean passages for rodents and perched on the upper stories of high-rise buildings.

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There are human characters in Kedi too—many who have developed a close bond with cats and reflect philosophically on how their lives have been improved by the relationship.

Differentiating between people proved more challenging than for felines, Torun says.

“I have to admit the cats were always very unique. The human stories were more similar,” she observes with a laugh.

Istanbul’s growth and the tightening of spaces amenable for street cats makes their future an open question. The city without its feline cohabitants would cost the metropolis a measure of its soul, the director believes.

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“That’s what is so empowering about the idea of the cat in Istanbul, at least for me, that they represent a timeless existence,” Torun notes, “an element of the city that’s been around much longer than any government, any empire, any particular society.”

Torun now calls Los Angeles home and she’s got a cat who has welcomed himself to at least a share of her life.

“He’s an 11-year-old male tabby who I feel is very much a middle-aged man. He will not tolerate certain things, and I have to approach him like that,” Torun concedes. “It’s kind of wonderful to experience life with another being like this.”

She calls him Firefly.  “He’s not officially ours,” she says. “He’s staying with us as long as he likes, kind of thing. Because he comes and goes as he wishes. And he’s very happy right now.”