I recently realized – really realized, for the first time ever – that most maps are to geography what a stick figure is to human anatomy. A map is a landscape taken to pragmatic extremes. The danger is when these images begin to shape our perspectives; to mapmakers, any “useless” space is considered superfluous. Belgian director Yaël André’s documentary Les chats errants: zones temporaires d’inutilité is a love letter to the in-between places and the ones who love them – stray cats.
The film follows stray cat enthusiasts in three European cities: Brussels, Hamburg, and Rome. To give you an idea of my relationship to this film, said enthusiasts were mostly elderly, and watching them was like previewing the twilight years of my own life.
But Les chats isn’t some kind of cat-on-map pornography. The film is, instead, a unique meditation on humanity’s nasty habit of imposing arbitrary distinctions. Using a lovely mix of aerial photography, cat footage, and interviews, André examines our obsession with deciding what is useful and what is – that most damning of words! – useless.
“Is there any useless information on this map?” a German mapmaker is asked. His reply is quick and brusque. “No, everything is of a great importance.”
Eschewing the conventions of narrative and journalistic documentary, André ventures through underbrush and abandoned parking lots to uncover the stomping grounds of local cat gangs. She introduces the viewer to the loose-knit communities of cat-lovers who pour their money and time into the care of the titular chats errants, a commitment they make to themselves as much as to the cats.
“Are stray cats useful?” André asks an Italian woman. Unlike the practical German mapmaker, the woman is unsure what to say. She shrugs. “Sono belli, e basta” (“They are beautiful, and that’s enough”).
In an era of heightening focus on environmental issues, Les chats errants reads as a reminder of yet another kind of human waste: the rejection of “useless” space. The film’s drawling narrator challenges the viewer to imagine a room in an apartment with no use at all. It’s a surprisingly hard thing to wrap one’s head around. As the voiceover says, “How to think of nothing without surrounding it with something?”
Even the term “stray cats” implies human priorities. In Rome, where wandering cats are so ubiquitous as to be considered “part of the monuments,” the word “stray” does not apply. Instead, a law has officially named these cats “free.”
Gatti liberi are expert wanderers. With no agenda beyond meeting their basic needs, cat gangs lead enviable lives in the forgotten corners of human society. Because I’m human and can’t resist, I wonder if cats’ embrace of the useless is their primary role – and, throughout the film, André seems to think the same thing. She interviews a German man who couldn’t agree more. With obvious affection, he casually assigns his beloved animals a purpose: “Cats keep places existing that have fallen off the map.”
Les chats errants plays at 7:30 p.m. on November 18, at Cinémathèque québécoise (in French only).