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category: Art,Gazette

Making Do

Wednesday, October 15, 2014 by

World War Z. Conan the Barbarian. Game of Thrones. The Devil’s Double. Agora. The Da Vinci Code. Munich. Alexander. Troy. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. The Count of Monte Cristo. Gladiator.

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The films in the above list have three things in common –

1.       They are all massive thriller/action/adventure productions

2.       They were all made in the last decade or so

3.       They all had part, or all, of their production done in Malta

Surprisingly, Malta’s hand in international cinema history is larger than one might first expect. Movies have been filmed here since the 1930s (that is, before we were even an independent republic, showing the Maltese people’s historic predilection for taking it easy in the background as long as someone is running the show) and some truly great pieces have used our island as a backdrop for their story.

And this is indeed the problem. Our film industry, in typical Maltese fashion, has developed an infrastructure that caters towards massive foreign features using our islands for the myriad of great resources and locations we can supply, hand in hand with some very attractive VAT returns and government rebates, which the local Maltese will even happily help fill out the forms for. We have the largest artificial water tanks in the Mediterranean. In some cases, we’ll even damage our beautiful islands for that foreign investment, as was the case with the Dwejra sand debacle a few years back when filming the popular TV show Game of Thrones.

Do not get me wrong. Tourism makes up 25 – 35% of Malta’s GDP, and we all know how important it is to attract foreign investment to our little rock in the Mediterranean Sea, especially if they bring Brangelina with them for photo ops (right Franco?).  The film industry has brought in north of 200 million euros in the last decade or so (World War Z spent 35 million euros here alone), despite stiff competition from Eastern Europe and North Africa. Even some of the people in PATRON’s office have benefited from this business model, having been employed as extras a few years back in Agora, to be paid fifty euros a day and given pastizzi and tea every few hours, in return for dressing up in ragged, itchy cloth and having Spanish people shout at us in Spanish.

And this is undoubtedly why the business model has been set up as so. All the money that is brought over here from America or Spain or Italy trickles down in a sort of Reaganomics wet dream, from the Maltese producers to the Maltese cast to the Maltese make up artists to the Maltese catering people to the Maltese extras and everyone in between.

And it’s pretty big money involved, so everyone gets a piece of the pie, even an 18 year old PATRON staff member.

But at the end of the day, the product is not Maltese. While I may be seen milling about in the background of the rape scene in Agora, for the most part, that’s about as far as Maltese input goes – everyone else is having a ball at the forefront, while the Maltese can only watch and hope to get a touch of the real fun.

That’s why we got so excited when we found out that there are not one but two feature-length films being produced right now in Malta, by Maltese crews. That is to say, written by Maltese, produced by Maltese, and directed by Maltese. When you realize that the British film industry gathered over five billion euros in 2011, and the American film industry raked in a whopping eight billion euros in 2010, you can’t help but wonder why it has taken us this long to get into the highly profitable indigenous film-making industry.

‘We are a small country’, I hear you cry, ‘we can’t support this kind of growth’. Tell that to Bahrain buddy, a country just over double our land size, but triple our GDP. Sure, they have oil, and they exploit this natural resource – but I think that’s exactly what we have failed to do.

We are so used to not having natural resources (apart from limestone and potatoes) that we don’t exploit what we do have. And that is a creative industry waiting for the infrastructure to support its growth, a group of young innovators waiting to be given the funding to create pieces in various genres of entertainment, and who instead find little hope and slim chances of ever seeing their project see the light of day.

We are known for our productive labour force, because there is the infrastructure to support it – but we’ll never be known for our productive creative force at this rate.

No wonder most of our young artists end up moving abroad in search of greener rocks, I mean, pastures. We have created a situation in Malta where if you are Maltese, it will be harder to make a film than if you are, say, American. Not to say that Americans, or any foreigners, are given some sort of preferential treatment. But the fact remains that many of their governments subsidise art projects, and they have created a strong support system for national creative endeavors. Ultimately, foreigners have access to better money than the local producers, and it seems that’s all that matters in Malta – even more so than being Maltese.

However, this year has seen two directors taking the creative and financial leap and push forward with filming two full feature length films in Malta, wisely taking advantage of the local environment, the rich contemporary history, and other resources, to kickstart the soon to be burgeoning Maltese indigenous film industry.

The Pioneers

Still From Simshar
Still From Simshar

“Economies of scale are against us unfortunately, and that is our most fundamental obstacle in my opinion. As for resources, it is not so much that they are scarce but more that there is no infrastructure in place for an indigenous industry; which makes everything that little more complicated” sighs Rebecca Cremona, the 29 year old writer/director/driving force behind upcoming exploding boats ocean thriller politi-drama Simshar. Having seen how the film industry works abroad in the UK and USA, she has tapped into Malta’s contemporary folklore and taken the tragic story of the fishing boat Simshar and developed a film out of it, mixing some facts with some fiction to create a moving and deeply personal take on one of the biggest tragedies in recent Maltese history.

“I really wanted to tell a Maltese story which was relevant on a local and universal level, and I felt that the themes which I saw in the events the film is inspired by – essentially, tradition and change – really did that.”

You can see her reasoning. Maltese figures and accents dealing with immigrants is standard practice in Malta; seeing them set to a backdrop of explosions, danger, and drama on the big screen is not. It gives the edge back to a matter we have become so accustomed to – irregular immigration in Malta – while highlighting the Southern European politics that go with this problem, namely the clashes between Malta and Italy over the immigrants found in the seas between our countries.

For as much as we are constantly reminded that Malta is traditional, traditional, traditional, the truth is that that may just be a reaction to the Maltese always having to deal with forces attempting to change it – and this is not just a recent phenomenon, one just has to look at our incredible history to see how Malta has always been a doorstep for foreign affairs and influences (From Yalta to Malta anyone?)

Maybe this is why we are so scared to be progressive on a day to day basis, so as not to lose those idiosyncrasies which we describe as ‘Maltese’. However, the everyday reality involves laborers ‘contracting’ irregular immigrants from their open centres to work for them, in construction, cleaning, fishing, or some other grunt job. That’s when many Maltese people come face to face with the semi-unwelcome truth within the contracted – that there is a whole cohort of these people living here, all over the island, and ignoring them will bring minimal gains since, for better or for worse, they are here to stay.

Cremona has succeeded in creating a work that captures Malta in the present day perfectly, by utilizing our contemporary geopolitics and one of our biggest social problems, while using a recent tragedy as the dramatic vehicle for her vision. It’s a laudable undertaking, and especially worthy of praise when understanding that this country has yet to produce a single full length feature film for international audiences – but Cremona is intent on taking this virgin cherry with considerable aplomb.

“Sometimes one just has to bite the bullet and do what needs to be done otherwise nothing will happen. Working within the field here I have met many eager and skilled people, so I definitely don’t think that there is a problem with motivation. However, to get an indigenous industry off the ground it is going to take systematic training and support mechanisms, amongst many other things, not just goodwill.”

While Malta may have a considerable amount of goodwill for projects, we have yet to develop an efficient way of using resources to practically support the projects. Cremona was lucky in the fact that she chose a film with many sea scenes – we are surrounded by the sea, and we have the Mediterranean’s largest artificial tank, both of which Simshar makes good use of. But is the country that was once renowned around Europe for halting the Turkish invasion of Europe hundreds of years ago really not able to offer more?

adormiderateaser 3 audrey final (2) (1)

“In Malta there are a number of very good and talented actors suitable to work in both short and feature films. When I approached a number of them and explained to them my intention to produce a medieval film, they accepted immediately. I don’t think it’s a lack of motivation involved in the lack of Maltese film making in Malta. There are many enthusiasts out there.”

Ray Mizzi has also taken on the task of directing a feature length Maltese film for international audiences. Having been awarded the Best Directorial Debut of a Short Film at the ITN Distribution Film & New Media Festival in New York a couple of years back, he teamed up with local production company Great Siege Productions to create Adormidera.

In contrast to Simshar, Adormidera is a swordfighting skirmisher set in the middle ages. Featuring cast full body armor, galloping horses, and a rough cut hero, it is squarely aimed at those interested in fantasy style escapades, a genre which has seen something of a recent resurgence.

With the medieval theme in vogue with a cohort of young Maltese adults, as seen in events like Medieval Mdina and the various sword fighting re-enactments held around Malta by groups like Show of Arms and Anakron, Mizzi tapped into a local skillset buoyed by keen interest, and, coupled with the local green areas and his directorial experience, was able to craft his medieval action epic.

In Mizzi’s case, local support and enthusiasm for his project have acted as a buttress for any other shortcomings Malta may provide. But it has always been in our Maltese nature to be opportunists (this comes with the territory, that is, the under-resourced territory, as it were). While we may have been the base for many major foreign films to be produced, with foreigners using our means to see their own work through, it is not like the Maltese have gained nothing in experience from being around the big money.

Where We Go From Here

Screen Shot 2013-05-30 at 3.08.14 PM

“In the early days 80% of the crew involved in major foreign films were foreign and 20% were locals. Today, however, it’s the reverse.”

Latina Pictures Ltd is the production company behind the big names coming to Malta, such as The Da Vinci Code, Troy, World War Z, and many others. Facilitating international pictures’ production has allowed budding Maltese filmmakers a unique training ground in their own country, and Winston Azzopardi, one of the founders of the company, knows how instrumental it is to get international exposure if we intend on creating our own industry.

However, he also knows how important local support is.

“The indigenous film industry is rapidly growing thanks to the Malta Film Commission. The more funds that are available, the more it will grow. As long as we are original with our stories then we can develop an industry of international value. We will never have the money to make big expensive films, nor should we try to imitate them. However, art house films can be a good avenue.”

As with all things creative, innovation is the key, and what Malta lacks in financial and physical resources it can make up with creative and innovative resources. Maybe it’s a coincidence, but we actually have our own indigenous master of innovation, Edward de Bono, who has this to say about creativity:

Creativity involves breaking out of established patterns in order to look at things in a different way. We need creativity and innovation in order to break free from the temporary structures that have been set up by a particular sequence of experience.

The temporary structures we have created around our creative industries is one of inferiority complexes and unfulfilled ideas. Innovation and breaking the mold is cast aside, namely to places like London, and bog-standard stagnation has set into our out of the box thinking. Instead of compelling TV shows, we have Teleshopping. Instead of a diversified radio selection, we have twelve religious stations. And instead of creating our own full on feature length films, we rely on foreign intervention.

Could you imagine the Germans watching predominantly Dutch television? The French listening to only gardening radio stations? The Americans watching mostly Canadian movies? No, so why must we settle for second rate indigenous creativity either, where mediocre plagiarism is the standard and island politics still stands in the way of a creative industry?

I know that the Maltese education system does everything within it’s power to crush any critical thinking burgeoning artists may have, and our insular culture demands that we do not realize our fullest potentials. But the world is a global village, and I say we do not need to restrict ourselves to these structures – they are temporary for a reason, and the time has come to overcome them and move onto the next stage of Malta’s creative path.

Our funding options are a great step forward. Between the Malta Arts Fund, the Malta Film Commission, and the various EU sponsored schemes (without which you would not even be holding this magazine within your sweaty, grubby, unfulfilled hands) we have been able to begin answering the financial problems facing our creative industries in Malta. These schemes need not only to continue, but to be broadened, and a commendation should go to the governmental departments responsible for the setting up and continuation of these.

But they do need to be expanded. And the funding needs to start going out to those artists and creative groups ready to push the boundaries. We live in an age when I can buy grade A crack from India, watch the Earth spin from space, and listen to every lecture of our time – all from the comfort of my bed.

So how don’t we have our own full length feature film yet?

And don’t give me Maltageddon. We are so much better than that.

Category Art,Gazette

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