A city re-imagined

An edited version of this interview was published on The Sunday Times.

When the Valletta 2018 official video was launched a couple of weeks ago, the impact was immediate.  I spoke to the people who made it happen .

Some three weeks ago, a short film celebrating our islands’ cultural was launched on to an unsuspecting public. The film – part of the drive initiated by the Valletta 2018 Foundation in a bid for our city to become European Capital of Culture in six years’ time – is unlike other previous offerings related to the capital.

It is an advert to the city, yes, but not quite. On the forefront we have bona fide professional footballers playing in one of the busy crossroads; two rival Żabbar bands playing side by side in a display of previously unheard of camaraderie;  a bunch of old people playing boċċi on the stage of the Manoel Theatre; a death-metal band playing at the old Biblioteca. Juxtaposed against all these unusual happenings we have the reality of the buskers in Republic Street; the elegance of the violinist in concert; the small grocery stores that form part of the old market; the rowers of the traditional dgħajsa tal-pass

In a way it is the Valletta we all know and love, but it is also a re-imagined Valletta, with the video showing us what the capital could become upon reaching its full potential, bringing together the most incredibly diverse elements of culture.

The video was co-directed and co-produced by Martin Bonniċi and Rebecca Cremona. Their brief, Valletta 2018 Foundation Communications Director Edward Bonello tells me, was to create a short film that would promote collaboration between artists and cultural operators from various fields.

“V.18 aims to celebrate all art and culture in Malta. Be it opera and theatre, or even boċċi. There is a place for everyone,” Bonello says.

The aim of reaching as many people as possible has been achieved rather successfully. The video went viral pretty fast, getting some six thousand views in just a week. On Facebook, the fan page counts over 30 thousand members.

Both Cremona and Bonniċi say that the film was also intended to kick-start a discussion about the various ramifications of culture by making everyone feel involved. The intention was achieved and reactions to the film have been overwhelmingly positive.

However, it’s a well-known fact that you can’t please all the people the whole time; one criticism that was made regarded the style of the film, with a couple of commentators accusing the end result of being “too sanitised” and “not showing the real Valletta”. How do the film-makers react to this?

“For starters we did want to create a discussion, so the fact that a discussion did indeed happen is a good thing. We want everyone to feel involved, to debate culture. However, it is important to remember that this is, indeed, an imagined Valletta, created using fantasy elements that are, however, based on a real scenario,” Cremona says.

Bonniċi agrees, adding that none of the scenarios depicted in the film were faked, with staging being kept to a minimum.

“Some commentators remarked that it was impossible to get to rival Żabbar bands to play together and that the situation didn’t depict reality. To these I reply that these were real band members – as opposed to actors – who couldn’t stop saying how much they enjoyed collaborating together for once. Festa enthusiasts who saw the clip saw it beautiful, not naive.”

Cremona explains that this element of reality was present in every single activity depicted, including the footballers.

“There was someone who said that he enjoyed the film, but would have preferred to have kids playing football rather than professionals. Then someone else said that he loved how we used professionals, and not ‘just a bunch of random kids’. It’s all very subjective.”

One of the team’s priorities was to include as many cultural genres as possible. Bonniċi remembers casually chatting to the owner of a boċċi club, who was aghast when he realised that traditional folk-singing (għana) was not to be included.

“My reply was for him to get involved. And he did, giving us CDs and information galore. We ended up using a good chunk of his material in the video. That was the whole idea; getting people who wouldn’t normally be involved to become part of it and to take ownership. And the majority responded well to that.”

Ironically, the fact that so many different aspects of culture were included caused some viewers to comment.

“Some said that they didn’t like a particular activity being promoted, such as death-metal for instance. Others were critical because the film’s target is extremely wide. But that is precisely the idea behind it,” Cremona says. “We didn’t want to make it ‘fringe’. Or even just mainstream. Anything that falls within the umbrella of culture is part of it, and it’s not limited to purely Maltese activities either.”

The scene with the capoiera dancers, in fact, is not what you’d call traditional Maltese. But both Cremona and Bonniċi believe in a Valletta that is a melting-pot of cultures. Even here, the film-makers steered away from over-staging in order to keep as real and spontaneous an air as possible.

“We just let the dancers do their own thing, there was very little staged choreography. The dancers themselves, bar the instructors, were also Maltese,” Bonniċi says.

The behind-the-scenes footage, they add, reflected this authenticity. A number of unscripted outtakes – most notably the part where narrator Roderick Vassallo spontaneously pirouettes back into the crowd of band players.

“That was pure Roderick, totally unplanned. And it worked beautifully. This spontaneity is all part of the cultural identity of Valletta,” Cremona concludes.

A fantastical vision indeed, but with content that could very well spell our cultural reality.

To view the short film visit www.valletta2018.org.