Director: Sarah Jayne Portelli
A gently affectionate portrait, the documentary Cats of Malta explores the unique relationship between the island’s people and their cats.
The director Sarah Jayne Portelli, who herself has Maltese heritage, moves to the island, partly to rediscover her roots. Portelli’s camera initially captures a postcard-perfect view. The pristine beaches, the turquoise sea. But then the camera lingers on cats wandering through the streets. Cats fighting. Cats cajoling the locals and dazzling the tourists.
Portelli’s voiceover informs us that while the human population of Malta is around 450,000, the stray cats number over 100,000. They are so prolific they have become a central part of Maltese life, and a serious boost to the tourism industry. Portelli’s film uncovers not only the community that care for these cats, but what the cats give in return.
Cats of Malta interviews key figures in Malta’s “cat community”. Roza, a cat feeder for over 50 years, notes that cats are like men: “when there’s food and caresses, out they come”. She talks about the therapeutic influence of cats; a sentiment verified by the other interviewees. They talk about the calming presence of cats and their ability to comfort. Portelli also records the commitment undertaken by Malta’s cat volunteers; sheltering abused animals and paying for food and medical treatment from their own pockets. Street Cat Rescue, who house 200 cats, discuss the need for government assistance, and better education on neutering.
The cats’ impact on Maltese culture is also explored through the work of sculptor Matthew Pandolfino. His giant cat statue, the “King of Cats”, invites artists to cover the sculpture with colour and pattern. In its latest incarnation, the Maltese Tourist Authority have asked Matthew to renovate the King. The cats not only bring character to Malta, they’re also big business.
The film absolutely delivers on charm. Portelli wisely lets the camera rest on the cats without pursuing them for ‘moments’. The cats’ personalities jostle the screen: we have the beefy ginger boys alongside the shy, timid creatures still reeling from abuse. Everyone is given time on camera; the gentle gaze with which Portelli regards the animals will be cinematic catnip for people who love to cat watch. And the Maltese cats, as they eye the camera boldly or diffidently, steal the show. Their starring role is nearly toppled by 13-year-old Isaac, who is the youngest cat feeder in the local community. Using his pocket money to pay for cat food, we follow him as he diligently feeds his regulars.
Cats of Malta, in its final analysis, ponders where the future of this cat community lies. There is Isaac, but as construction companies press for more and more patches of land to develop, the cats’ safe spaces are taken away. Cats of Malta is, of course, a homage to a cornerstone of Maltese life, but at its heart, the documentary asks bigger questions about how society looks after its most vulnerable. Portelli’s film argues for not just a rethink of priorities, but a cultural shift.
CatsofMalta will be available on Digital Download from 25th September.