Cats of Malta review – purr-inducing documentary aims to encourage compassion

Social media, for all its sins, has achieved at least one thing in this crazy, mixed-up world: it’s raised everyone’s game when it comes to cat videos. What artist Louis Wain did for cat illustration in the 19th century, YouTube, Instagram and TikTok have done for our feline friends in the 21st, celebrating their strangeness, comic absurdity, and capacity for grumpiness. Meanwhile, there’s a growing genre of documentary films about cats and their relationship with humans, some of which add to the cat-people Venn-diagram-overlap an extra subset concerned with specific places, such as the magnificent Kedi, which profiled the street cats of Istanbul and their human friends.

Cats of Malta, as its unambiguous title suggests, wants to do for Malta what Kedi did for Istanbul. It celebrates these very territorial creatures that share the streets of ancient neighbourhoods, with their history recounted by director Sarah Jayne’s voiceover. The cats are mostly unconcerned with the human residents except when they have needs to be met, such as hunger or medical emergencies. And so we get stories told straight to camera by kindly humans who had to help when, for example, an aggressive kick by a passing dog owner ended up costing one tom a front leg. Another person created a little cat village next to a historic stretch of wall built by the Knights Templar – a lovely conjunction of antiquity and super-tacky plastic cat shelters – but was forced to take it down by developers with plans for the site. Many of the humans, including the cat-village builder, English-Maltese actor Polly Marsh and 13-year-old natural comic Isaac Muscat, voluntarily spend huge chunks of their free time feeding the cats. They also, when possible, trap them so that they can be neutered or spayed, thus reducing the feral population.

Most of the subjects talk about how much the cats give back by, for example, helping people lower their heart rates and blood pressure through relaxing cuddles, as if any cat fan watching this needed to be persuaded. There’s a proselytising quality at times that may baffle already-converted viewers but perhaps the film-makers are trying to persuade less pro-cat members of the audience to be more compassionate. Indeed, the film’s tone and purpose are a little hazy at times, making this not as satisfying as spending a good hour browsing cat memes, but it is still soft, fuzzy and purr-inducing. Also there’s a fantastic bit where a cat, captured in a cage to visit the vet, makes a meow that basically sounds like he’s saying “No! No!” Genuinely hilarious.

• Cats of Malta is released on 25 September on digital platforms.