This is what the documentary (read the review here) about the man who split the Maltese in two opposing camps can be described as. I met up with director and producer Pierre Ellul about how he came to immortalise the prime minister who still inspires equal measures of hatred and love to celluloid. It all started with a report that appeared on The Times, he tells me with a smile.
“This was back in 2006. It was Mintoff’s birthday and I was amazed by the sheer response that the report generated. It seemed like people couldn’t help but add their two cents’ worth – whether they were admirers or they couldn’t stand to hear Mintoff’s name mentioned, they all wrote in. The comments were staggering in quantity ,” Pierre tells me.
The incident got him thinking: for someone who, love him or hate him, ended up playing such a pivotal role in the history of Malta, no one had as yet attempted to tackle the political life of Mintoff on film. Pierre decided that someone should rectify this and that he would attempt to do so. Is this because he’s an extreme politics aficionado, I wonder out loud.
“Not at all. Both prior to working on Dear Dom and even now, I really have no interest in partisan politics. What I’m
interested in are people and their stories. Mintoff’s story sort of just hit me, he is probably one of the few Maltese capable of inspiring such strong and extreme reactions in people. Everyone will react when you mention his name. From a story-telling point of view, that is exactly what a film-maker is usually after.”
Pierre says that he was inspired, in some measure, by Oliver Stone’s docu-movie Commandante, which traced the life and times of Fidel Castro. The idea, at first, was to focus on a one-on-one interview with the man himself, but fate intervened with this.
“I first contacted Mintoff while still living in London. When I explained what I was after, he asked me to write to him.. This was to be a recurrent theme, he would always ask me to send him a fax whenever I called him. You’d be surprised at how difficult it is to find a working fax in central London, which is where I was living at the time,” he jokes.
These phone-calls and faxes marked the start of the communication between the two. Finally, Pierre decided to return to Malta for a face-to-face meeting. However it was not to be: upon Pierre’s return, Mintoff’s health suddenly deteriorated and the man wound up hospitalised.
“I remember meeting up with his brother, Fr Dionysius, who gave me quite some insights into Mintoff’s upbringing and even about Maltese history. However, our chat made me realise one thing: the one-on-one interview concept that I had planned was never going to happen. Not with Mintoff’s health having deteriorated so suddenly and definitely.”
Pierre adds that many were those who wondered why he didn’t do an “Iron Lady”, which despite rave reviews attracted a fair share of censure for portraying England’s former prime minister Margaret Thatcher as “a frail woman, suffering with dementia.”
“I didn’t think it fair to the man. I didn’t want to be the person who does that to someone. This is a documentary about Mintoff’s political career – portraying him at this stage in his life wouldn’t have done him justice,” he tells me.
The film-maker realised that it was time to move to Plan B – which he didn’t have yet. Pierre continued carrying out intensive research at the London national archives before returning to Malta. In 2008, the Malta Film Fund was launched and Falkun Films, Pierre’s company, proposed the documentary. The proposal was accepted and suddenly it was all systems go. But what was the reactions of family and friends – surely the idea of tackling such a larger-than-life character like Mintoff’s might have worried some?
“Not really. My father and aunt are both very interested in political history so it wasn’t an issue for them. The people who are close to me where all enthused about the idea. The co-producer, Joe Azzopardi, was immediately excited about it, he too saw that Mintoff is the perfect subject for a film in many ways. What the man does to people’s emotions is quite impressive. The art of story-telling is all about conflict in the characters and so forth… the elements are all there.”
Pierre tells me that quite early on in the research stage he realised that there were still many people who were wary of committing their views to camera or on recording. People who were eager to heap praise were easily available; the critics, however, were less keen on having their views made public.
“I was quite surprised that after all these years there is still an element of fear. This was in 2010… why did some people still have a problem saying negative things? My idea was to take to the streets to get the people’s vibe. Everyone who grew up in that era has a particular story about Mintoff, whether good or bad. It was quite a challenge to get the people to commit on the less complimentary stuff, though,” he tells me.
One of the biggest issues that had to be sorted early on was exactly how to tackle such a massive character and pin him down on celluloid. Where do you even start. Pierre wanted to avoid creating a boring documentary that took the linear and chronological approach. Everyone knew about the historical timeline, what he wanted to do was capture the actual personality of the man.
“I took the angle of breaking down the components of our society, those components who would have been affected by Mintoff’s actions. I didn’t want a documentary with a lot of experts and politicians and talking heads. I wanted the man in the street to tell me about his experience, the Joe Borg whose daily life was affected in one way or another. The documentary contains original interviews with people who lived through the time and who experienced his premiership.”
Amongst these is economist and former minister Lino Spiteri, who was not only part of Mintoff’s cabinet but who was also directly affected by the religious interdiction that targeted the labour party and its voters in the ‘60s.
“He was one of the people who couldnt’ get married in the church and whose life was, to a certain extent, shaped by the events that were happening around Mintoff.”
The documentary also includes archive footage from BBC and PBS, photography from a variety of sources, an excerpt from a tourism commercial that was appearing in the ‘70s, a series of specific animations that I used to recreate certain events that lacked footage… in short, the production tries to capture a moment in time through the memory of the people who lived it,” Pierre continues.
I ask Pierre whether his own recollections coloured the documentary.
“Of course I was very young back then. So my main memories are the ones that people still mention to date. Such as the fact that we had no chocolate, for instance. But this documentary is certainly not about my recollections of the era. I view this documentary, in a way, as filtering out the noise, as saying what the people of that generation really thought about him. The production includes eight main interviews in all, and all the interviewees exemplify the life and times that Mintoff brought with him.”
Dear Dom, Pierre adds, is purely about the politician behind the man and does not touch on Mintoff’s personal life. One of his favourite insights is that given through the footage that shows the former Prime Minister in discussions with Lord Carrington during negotiations about Malta.
“Concluding the documentary and bringing it down to about 67 minutes was a mammoth task. There were times when I really thought I’d give up. It was thanks to the people close to me, particularly my wife,that I persevered. But this is by no means a comprehensive look at the man. You can’t achieve that in one documentary. The focus is on his achievements and his downfalls and how his actions shaped the future of the country. I’m hoping people will look at it with an open mind, from a different place than they’re used to looking at Mintoff.”
In a way, he continues to tell me, he found the documentary to be almost like looking into a mirror and for the first time seeing what is really there, as opposed to what you’re expecting to see. Everything in the documentary is factual and backed up by people’s experiences.
“You can’t deny those experiences as not being real, even if you yourself disagree with the reaction of the people who lived them. Now that it has all come to a conclusion I can’t wait to see how people will react to it. I’ve had Mintoff under my skin for these past 6 years. Throughout this time I got married and had two kids… ironically, my first child was born on March 31st, ie Freedom Day. The second daughter should have shared Mintoff’s birthday but decided to show up early…That is how much the man got under my skin, I guess,” he tells me with a smile.
Of course, as film-maker Pierre does take a position at the end. You can’t do a documentary like this and then stand on the fence, he tells me ruefully. Just what position he takes, you will need to watch the film to find out. Just make sure you don’t walk out as soon as the credits start to roll. In true film-making fashion, Pierre has saved one of the best clips for last, right after the credits end.
Dear Dom opens at the Eden Cinemas today. This interview was published on The TV Guide (The Times of Malta).