The cinema industry in Malta is presently undergoing notable positive changes, continuing to entice Hollywood directors and producers to create their films locally. Only recently was the news announced that Michael Bay’s drama on the killing of the American ambassador in Libya would be filmed locally. From an economic perspective, having such films shot in Malta is ideal for many obvious reasons. However, the presence of big-budget Hollywood movie culture is slightly worrying from a cultural and artistic angle as the commercial objective of these films predominates the choice of content and form, both being subjected to spectacularity.
The aspect which worries me is the fact that Malta is still in the process of developing its own indigenous film culture and the models to which we are being exposed directly, to which we are physically held in close proximity, largely follow the Hollywood model. I am not trying to insinuate that all big-budget movies are artistically inferior, far from it. However, Hollywood’s hegemonic power over the way we watch moving images has attuned our demands and expectations to certain filmic standards. These could be detrimental to a burgeoning scene which has not yet built up a strong tradition of film production. Luckily, two of the most recent Maltese-produced films showed an organic approach towards choice of narrative and visualisation. They dealt with Malta as subject matter or setting and their narratives conveyed something of the global – the universal – but without detaching themselves from the culture within which they were born. This local-particular aspect is important to any creative process so long as it evades insularization.
Everyone is now aware of Rebecca Cremona’s sea-tragedy Simshar, a film which was copiously reviewed and written about in local media. Cremona took a local story which affected a Marsaxlokk family, placed it within the context of the illegal immigration dispute, and through such misfortune tried to convey the beauty of human solidarity. She was partially successful in my opinion, as the film was too evocatively sensationalist at times and this overt dramatic approach can have the effect of minimising the creative value of cinema, which holds its own formal laws of expressing the human condition. Whilst Cremona’s film engendered viewer sympathy towards the protagonists of the story, Chris Zarb’s Do Re Mi Fa, released about 9 months later, presented troubled and peculiar characters within an intertwined narrative ending in an almost suicidal climax within a familiar Maltese environment.
Zarb’s film is lesser known and still needs to be screened publicly (this will happen in a few months or so). I imagine that it will appeal to a smaller audience because of its disturbing introspective approach to character development. Zarb takes us into the intimate spaces of four individuals who are pushed to the brink by means of psychological, social and physical pressures. We meet a theatre actress who cannot bear ageing yet is surrounded by the beauty of youth, a paedophile clown who entertains at children’s parties, a radio talk show host who is both confident and ambiguous (but clearly distressed by his oscillating political stances) and a career-focused television production employee who can never advance professionally due to the perpetual health impediments which surround him and his family. These people quotidianly come into direct contact with that which they fear and love.
Do Re Mi Fa is a film about the conflicts which push people to the very edge but which simultaneously hinder them from taking the final plunge. Zarb has cleverly manifested these various contradictions within all aspects of the film, for example in the political issues discussed which are issues of great local contention (illegal immigration, animal rights) and these were tackled through the character of the equivocal radio show presenter, expressing the antagonistic division which exists in the Maltese public sphere. Contrasts were also represented visually in the film through the private spaces which Zarb created for each of his characters. Bozo the clown lives in a multicoloured haphazard apartment and sleeps on the sofa with his teddy. Yet when he sets out on an ‘adult’ venture to find a job, Bozo finds himself in the unfamiliar coldness of an elongated white boardroom, sitting across from his social antipodes, two business executives, and a large Luciano Micallef abstract. Zarb’s attention to psychological detail is intriguing, and an element which also emerges in his amusingly macabre short films.
Chris Zarb’s film has given local film a positive turn. Maltese cinema must continue to pursue the compelling strides it has made over recent years, since it has seen developments but requires much more technical, aesthetic and intellectual industry. The country strongly necessitates a competitive environment for cinema, as well as for all other art forms. This aspect of competitiveness breathes life into the arts and thus its perpetuity is essential. If Zarb and Cremona halt here, then this burgeoning youthful cinematic scene would develop in isolation and with sporadic rhythm. Malta’s contemporary art scene years for collectivity, consistent productivity, debate, criticism and continuous self-doubt.
To see Chris Zarb’s short film productions visit https://vimeo.com/chrismzarb
Written by Nikki Petroni
Imagery by Chris Zarb and Paul Preca Trapani
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