Whenever a film crew lands in Malta the gossip grapevine starts buzzing. Who will the actors and directors be? Where will the filming take place? How many extras are being taken on board? Nothing gets the questions going as fast as Hollywood. And no-one supplies the answers quite as fast as Filmed in Malta. The page, I was to learn at this year’s Malta FilmSpeak Convention, is the brainchild of Jean Pierre Borg. Jean Pierre is nothing if not a committed film buff, a walking encyclopedia of movie titles, actors, set information and all. I met up with him to find out more about how the whole enterprise came about.
“Filmed in Malta started out of my personal interest in the local film servicing industry. I spend hours researching the web for reliable news reports about what is going on; with the advent of social media I decided to share this information. Since then the page has taken on a life of its own, with the number of followers growing on a daily basis. It’s pretty much a round the clock endeavour now, in actual fact,” Jean Pierre tells me.
Jean Pierre caught the film bug years ago in 1994, when he ended up on the Cutthroat Island film set located at the Cottonera Waterfront. For Jean Pierre, this experience opened up a new world, a world of intricate decor, of fantastic designs, of a highly charged atmosphere with crew, actors and extras buzzing around. The way the “dressed” location easily adapted itself to become Port Royal in Jamaica was to be the beginning of a new obsession.
“After that first experience it became somewhat of a passion of mine, finding out about the films that were shot in Malta. I have always been into movies from a very young age, and I was obviously intrigued both by the new productions that were coming to Malta and by the older ones that no-one spoke about much anymore.”
Jean Pierre’s mission was to find out as much information as he could about movies that have been filmed in Malta throughout the years. Unfortunately, he was to discover that until recently no individual or entity ever bothered to compile an organised database, let alone set up an archive about all these productions.
“Keep in mind that until a relatively short time ago we had no internet and no archives of any sort. It was to be an uphill process and as new productions keep getting discovered and others filmed, the compilation of a chronological list of films is a constant objective of mine. New productions keep cropping up but obviously it’s not always possible to verify. I will only accept a movie on my list if there is documentation or if I obtain first person confirmation from someone who was on the crew.”
Jean Pierre cites James Bond’s The Spy Who Loved Me and Never Say Never Again as two of the unverifiable productions; both movies list Malta as one of the filming locations on IMDB (the International Movie Database), however Jean Pierre has not managed to find any third party confirmation, yet.
“Before the Malta Film Commission was set up in the year 2000, some productions which did not make use of the tanks at the Mediterranean Film Studios used to come to Malta, shoot, and leave. For these there is no paper trail or records of any kind to consult. Hence the difficulty. In the meantime, in collaboration with the Malta Film Commission – with whom I work quite closely – we published an official list of 105 feature films that were shot on our islands. However, the list is always on the increase as new discoveries are made and new productions are filmed,” Jean Pierre explains.
As for those who imagine that the local filming industry only sprouted up in recent years, nothing could be further from the truth. Jean Pierre mentions the 1925 silent feature film, Sons of the Sea, which was filmed on the admiralty vessel HMS Malaya, as likely being the first production to shoot in Malta. Scenes on land were shot at the area known as il-Minżel tal-Majjiesa.
The movie was followed by The Battles of Coronel and the Falkland Islands in 1927, also filmed on ships from the Mediterranean fleet stationed in Malta. In 1928, Bolibar was shot partly in Ħaż-Żebbuġ and also supposedly in Mdina, although this latter part remains unconfirmed. In this movie, Malta was used to stand for a Spanish town during the Napoleonic Wars. In 1930, another movie called Tell England, based on the landings of Gallipoli was also shot here. The movie was based on Ernest Raymond’s eponymous novel and Malta was used to stand for Gallipoli, with the beaches at Mġiebaħ, Għajn Tuffieħa and Marsaxlokk used to re-create the tragic landings of the Anzac forces in 1915.
“Till now I have not met a living person who can tell the tale of any of these productions, but the documentation exists. All these movies were shot by the same company, which had very close ties to the Admiralty and thus benefitted from a lot of support from the Mediterranean fleet stationed on our islands. Getting permission to shoot on one of their vessels was no easy task, I’m sure. I managed to hunt down an original poster and publicity material for ‘Tell England’ from various collectors in Malta and elsewhere,” Jean Pierre continues.
Jean Pierre tells me that he actually managed to view part of Sons of the Sea, through the four reels that have survived. However, he wasn’t so lucky with Bolibar – Jean Pierre recently travelled to the British Film Institute in the UK, where he had been informed that the reels were kept. Unfortunately, upon arriving there, he was told that these had been misplaced.
“Over a thousand Maltese extras are reputed to have taken part in Bolibar, according to the movie programme. From stories I’ve gleaned, the whole thing was considered a massive event in Ħaż-Żebbuġ, with people showing up from miles away in order to witness the filming.”
Jean Pierre tells me that he has managed to collect all sorts of memorabilia from the movies that were filmed here. These include anything from posters to flyers, press packs, scripts, set designs and more. And in the meantime, there is also Filmed in Malta to keep alive.
“The amount of communication I receive through Filmed in Malta is incredible. It’s extremely fascinating because nowadays people who are interested in the industry tend to contact me directly with queries. There’s also a certain responsibility to it as I always cross-check sources before running anything and anything I run comes from official sources,” he tells me.
Jean Pierre also keeps an eye out for people posting unauthorised production photography that wasn’t released by the filming company itself. “Extras are usually very keen to share photos, particularly on Facebook and the enthusiasm is understandable. However it’s not always a good idea, particularly when issues of spoilers in relation to costumes and sets emerge.”
Jean Pierre proudly also admits that he intentionally gives prominence to local talent. “Over the past years, one has witnessed a surge in quality of local productions. There are a number of local directors who I am really following closely as I’m looking forward to their swift progress. Similarly I also wish to find the time to dedicate a space to pay tribute to pioneer Maltese filmmakers like Cecil Satariano and Alfred Vella Gera”.
Jean Pierre’s on-going ambition is to continue with the formal cataloguing of all the memorabilia he has collected; he also dreams of the day when all movies that were shot in Malta are catalogued, restored where necessary, and made accessible.
“As things stand, those who would like to see all the movies that were shot here cannot. I also dream of publishing this research and contributing towards the setting up of a temporary or permanent exhibition on the matter,” he concludes.
This interview was published on The TV Guide (The Times of Malta).