“People who don’t love animals don’t love people either.”

So says a fishmonger in Istanbul in an early scene of KEDi, the first feature documentary from Ceyda Torun, who was born in the city and grew up among its roving cat population. It’s a sentiment that could serve as the thesis statement for the beautifully made film, structured as a series of portraits of individual local cats as told to the camera by their human cohabitants. The cats are ostensibly all strays, but you wouldn’t know it from the glowing way their humans speak about them: They all have names, and their idiosyncrasies are the subject of much affectionate discussion and amusement in their communities. Watching KEDi, you’re struck over and over again by the therapeutic quality of feline company—multiple interviewees in the film credit cats for saving their lives—and how wide a swath of Istanbul’s citizenry they’ve affected, from artists to housewives to grizzled old sailors.

Torun produced the film under her Termite Films production company banner alongside partner Charlie Wuppermann, who with Alp Korfali served as a cinematographer. The DPs’ cameras capture their subjects in full feline glory: There are intimate close-ups aplenty of cats, who don’t seem aware that they’re being watched. In one memorable scene, the audience lands smack dab in the middle of a fight between neighborhood bigwig Gamsiz and a scrappy young challenger, who rears up on his hind legs in attack. It’s actually rather thrilling.

Cat fight on the streets of Istanbul in KEDi

Belying its simple premise (the word “kedi” just means “cat” in Turkish), the film has already done huge business at the box office: Playing at a single theater—the Metrograph in New York—last weekend, it netted an impressive $40,510, breaking opening weekend records for both that theater and the film’s distributor, Oscilloscope. Selling out 21 showtimes, KEDi received a better per screen average than any documentary did all of last year.

It’s a remarkable feat for such an assuming doc, possibly spurred on by the film’s overt humanism (felinism?) and empathy, qualities we’re all sorely missing this winter. With cats, one woman says in the film, we humans might “regain our fading sense of humor and rekindle our slowly dying joy for life.” Perhaps that’s true.

Or perhaps audiences just wanted to look at pictures of really, really adorable kitties. Either way, Torun and Wuppermann, who wrote us the following email interview, aren’t complaining.

Kelly Leow, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): How did you handpick these particular cats for the film?

Ceyda Torun and Charlie Wuppermann: We didn’t have to handpick them. They made it very clear from the moment we approached them whether they wanted to be filmed or not. If they didn’t mind our presence, we took it as a sign of their consent. On the whole, Istanbul cats are very accustomed to people, so most of them were fine with us chasing after them with cameras.

Istanbul’s skyline in KEDi

MM: What did you have to do to gain the cats’ trust, especially for getting those extreme close-ups?

We spent a lot of time with them. We petted them if they wanted to be pet. We moved very slowly so as not to startle them, but they seemed to like being observed, and the camera lens was like a giant eye to them. It helped that Charlie and Alp are both very calm people with positive energies… They have the same effect on people!

MM: What gear did you use? Did you have to factor the animals into the choice?

We chose to use Canon 5D Mark IIIs, with L series zoom lenses, in order to capture the beauty of the city and the animals while remaining incognito. We often were mistaken for photographers, so most people, other than our interviewees, left us alone and were natural if they were on camera. We had a bunch of different rigs so that we could follow the cats on their eye level.

Keeping the cats in focus was the biggest challenge with the shallow depth of field of the large Canon chip, but we felt that the soft backgrounds really helped to create a cinematic feel. The cats loved the cameras, so much that they would come up and rub themselves against them.

MM: Can you talk about the editing process? How much footage did you capture in total?

We had 180 hours of footage when we started the edit. We knew we had to begin with the individual cat stories, which was relatively straightforward to edit. Mo Stoebe, our editor, did an amazing job slicing together the day-in-the-life stories of these cats. The more challenging part was stringing those stories together in a way that formed a structure and created an emotional journey.

MM: What did you have to discard that you would’ve liked to include?

We had to eliminate a lot of stories of cats, either because their stories did not feel resolved, or they felt repetitive in some way. Some of the best will be a part of the DVD extras along with extended interviews, though.

A feline subject in KEDi

MM: Lastly, How did you choose your human subjects in the film?

When we went to Istanbul a year earlier to research the general idea of the film, we met a lot of people by walking the streets and striking up conversations with those who seemed to be involved in cats’ lives. We also reached out to people who were known to be interested in cats—artists, novelists, professors, philosophers, psychologists, scientists—to get their perspective and insight. We also tried to interview people who did not like cats! But we found that their dislike of cats simply spoke to their individual preferences rather than a broader understanding of the human-cat relationship. MM

KEDi is currently in theaters in New York and opens in Los Angeles on February 17, 2017, courtesy of Oscilloscope.