Guest post: Malta film nostalgia

1926’s Sons of the Sea

Guest post by Jean Pierre Borg, film researcher and the brains behind the Filmed In Malta Facebook community

 

Who would have thought that Malta’s film industry was actually launched thanks to the British Admiralty back in 1926?For decades, it was thought that the earliest feature film to be shot in Malta was the 1931 war film Tell England. Following the discovery that Bolibar, a 1927 silent film by the same production company, had also been filmed on our shores, I decided to carry out in-depth research on this particular film company. My research led to the discovery of two earlier productions which had also been filmed in Malta – the 1927 Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands and Sons of the Sea, filmed in 1925 and released in 1926.

The March 6 edition of The Daily Malta Chronicle of 1925 reported that the British Admiralty had granted permission for the filming of a fiction film aboard the Mediterranean Fleet, and in particular aboard HMS Malaya. The article highlighted the fact that this was a first for the Admiralty which had a long history of professed distaste for film. Over the years, however, the potential for propaganda offered by the medium became evident and this strict position had relented. Nevertheless, all the other films which the Admiralty had co-operated on were documentaries or re-enactment films thus making Sons of the Sea the first purely fiction film made with full Admiralty support.

The company behind Sons of the Sea was British Instructional Films (BIF), a company founded by Harry Bruce Woolfe in 1919. Starting off with a meagre capital of £3,000, the innovative film-maker Woolfe quickly propelled BIF to become Britain’s foremost producer of, amongst others, military re-enactment films. When in 1923 the Admiralty was seeking a film company to document the empire cruise of the Special Service Squadron, no tenders were submitted, and it was only after a last-minute appeal that BIF accepted the contract. The resulting film, Britain’s Birthright, proved to be a commercial failure, but by producing it the company won the Admiralty’s gratitude and may have spurred the Admiralty to allow the filming aboard its fleet, a privilege, which did not come without a fair share of strict conditions.

The author of the screenplay was Commander Taprell Dorling, a very prolific author of naval-centric novels who often also wrote under the pseudonym Taffrail. The storyline was developed around a romantic plot so as to make the film appealing to the general public. However, in order to promote the work of the navy, all sorts of naval scenes from air attack to big gun practice were to be included in the film. Before a second of film was even produced, every line of the script was read and discussed by the Lord Commissioners of the Admiralty.

In a letter sent by Woolfe from Malta while directing the film in March 1925, he mentioned scenes taken of salvos of eight fifteen-inch guns fired together on HMS Malaya, of gun crews in the turrets, wonderful views of a torpedo attack launched from airplanes, and cameras being mounted both on an airplane as well as on an observing ship. Enthusiastically, he pointed out that such a thing had never been filmed before and that there was no certainty that these scenes would be allowed in the film intended for the public. Indeed, every foot of film shot was scrutinized by the Admiralty and a number of scenes likely to give away sensitive information were deleted.

One further limitation imposed by the Admiralty on the film producers was that professional actresses were not to be allowed aboard warships. Lead male roles were played by naval officers while the daughter of a General took on the part of the heroine and adopted the screen name of Dorothy Barclay to further preserve a degree of anonymity.

According to the official press kit, the film follows the careers of two young men, Derek who enrolls as a Navy officer and Bill who trains to become a seaman. Diana, is smitten by Derek but when WWI breaks out, Derek is sent to fight in the Battle of Jutland while Diana joins up as a nurse and is sent to Malta. Having distinguished himself, Derek is given the command of the destroyer on which Bill is posted.

Shortly after the Armistice, Derek’s destroyer is sent to the Mediterranean where a chance meeting brings the two lovers together. However, the joy is short lived as Derek’s ship is under orders to sail at once. Diana seeks distraction by exploring a nearby island and has the misfortune to be kidnapped by a roving band of brigands who demand a ransom.

Derek’s ship is ordered to the rescue. Led by Derek, the blue-jackets rapidly come upon the brigands and after an exciting struggle in which Bill displays much bravery, Derek gallantly rescues the girl from her perilous plight.

Leading journals of the time unanimously agreed that the intimate glimpses of British naval life ashore and afloat were outstanding features in this unique film. While the extremely vivid and varied scenes of the Navy were praised, the storyline was puerile when compared to the superior scenes of cadets in training at the Royal Naval College in Dartmouth, the glimpses of torpedoes and mines stored at Portsmouth, the flashes of Greenwich, Malta and Shotley and the numerous superb pictures of HMS Queen Elizabeth and other warships at sea and in action. Some attributed the poor storyline to the very severe restrictions imposed by the Admiralty, where for instance, none of the actors were professional.

The only known but incomplete copy of the film is stored in the National Archive at the British Film Institute (BFI) in London. Only four out of the original six reels survive today, but with over 85 per cent of silent era films considered lost, we can actually be thankful that at least we still have something! The first two reels contain the scenes of Derek’s and Bill’s training and also introduce us to Diana. It can be assumed that the two middle missing reels contained the bulk of naval scenes including the Battle of Jutland as well as Diana’s stay at Malta, while the final two reels have the heroine being kidnapped by the brigands and eventually rescued by her heart-throb.

Unless the two missing reels are recovered, it will remain a mystery if any Maltese locations were actually used for the scenes of Diana serving as a nurse in Malta. Film enthusiasts, who enjoy seeing Malta used as a film location, will be pleased to know however that the last two reels were completely shot on land and sea in the Għajn Tuffieħa and Ġnejna area. Malta, in this segment, is used to stand in for an unnamed island in the Eastern Mediterranean. Il-Qarraba is clearly visible a number of times and most of the action surrounding the kidnap and eventual rescue of Diana from the brigands takes place in the area known as il-Minżel tal-Majjiesa. While no specific reference to Maltese people being involved in this production has ever been encountered, one particular article referred to the “Maltese brigands” which leads one to wonder whether the people playing the part were actually Maltese extras.

While this film per se is frankly nothing out of the ordinary, it still carries with it the distinction of being the first feature film shot on our shores and the first fiction film to boast Admiralty support. For that alone, one cannot but hope that someday, though incomplete, it is restored and made more accessible.

For more information about the past and present filming industry in Malta, visit the Filmed In Malta Facebook community page.

This post was published on The TV Guide (Times of Malta). Check out the next issue on Saturday for another instalment from the Filmed In Malta series.

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The man behind Filmed In Malta

Photos in this post were taken by Chris Sant Fournier for The Times TV Guide.

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).

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Sei Passi Nel Giallo: a post-mortem interview

With the Sei Passi Nel Giallo series now over, I caught up with the man who was in charge of managing the whole project locally, Winston Azzopardi.

The series was in fact totally shot in Malta – in some of the movies we double for Sicily and for Italy while in one episode, Presagi, Malta is actually playing itself, so to speak. Moreover, we haven’t seen so many familiar Maltese faces on Italian prime-time television in quite a while. Well, probably in forever, come to think of it; local actors that were included on the cast included Manuel Cauchi, Edward Mercieca, Marc Cabourdin, Nathan Brimmer, Colin Fitz, Paul Portelli, David Ellul Mercer, Mark Mifsud, Alan Paris and Colin Azzopardi amongst other names.

Winston Azzopardi  managed the production in Malta and  was responsible for making it happen. Winston, of course, is very much the go-to man in the local industry. His own involvement in Sei Passi started way back when he worked on a Malta-filmed episode of popular police series Carabinieri. With Mediaset being happy with the way things turned out, this led to some episodes from the equally popular series Il Commissario Rex to be also filmed in Malta. Fast-forward to 2010 and an even bigger engagement landed on Winston’s – and on Malta’s plate.

“Mediaset wanted to produce a ‘movie of the week’ series. They were pleased with their previous experiences on set here and this time round they were looking for a country that would effectively double-up for Sicily and for Italy without exceeding their budget. They figured Malta was a very good choice. The first movie to be filmed here was Vite In Ostaggio, back in March 2010,” Winston tells me.

This was followed by Presagi in April/May 2010, Omicidio Su Misura in July 2010, Bodyguard in February 2011, followed by Gemelle  in April and Souvenirs last June. Quite a schedule, I point out. Winston smiles and agrees, adding that the timings were extremely fast for the filming industry.

“This was one of the biggest challenges we  faced. The majority of the productions movies were practically filmed back-to-back and we have to wrap everything up in four weeks max per movie. We didn’t have the luxury of a massive budget so we really needed to work fast,” Winston explains.

Besides the obvious logistical hassles, the time-frame brought with it the issue of human resources. One challenge was to find enough local cast members who were available in such a short time span without over-using the same faces.

“It’s not easy to secure two completely fresh sets of cast to work within weeks of each other. In some cases we did use the same people twice. This is Malta after all, and there are only so many actors/cast/crew to go around. One of our problems, for example, is that most of our actors are stage actors. Camera actors usually use a totally different technique; they don’t need to project as much, for starters. And they don’t have the luxury of a whole stage to perform on but are tied to the few meters right in front of the camera. So finding the right people isn’t always a straightforward business. Somehow, we managed – no mean feat to do that within budget!”

Winston goes on to say that one of the biggest satisfactions the whole project brought with it was, in fact, that the got to use a lot of Maltese faces. The viewers, obviously are loving it.

“We do have some very good people here. I just wish I had more parts to give them!”

The Maltese landscape is also getting rather a food airing. Among the outdoor locations  used for filming are St. Elmo, the Upper Barrakka Gardens in Valletta, Golden Bay, Fort Ricasoli, Dingli Cliffs, the Vittoriosa Waterfront, San Anton Gardens, St Paul’s Bay, the Hibernians Football Ground, the Manoel Island yacht yard, Anchor Bay and Popeyes Billage. The University, De La Salle College, St Catherine’s and St Phillip’s hospitals, Villa Madliena, Net TV,  a junkyard in Zejtun, a bookshop in Paceville and the Golden Sands Hotel were also among the list of private properties that feature in the series. Of particular interest to fans of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie is the fact that the massive house in Qrendi that was used in Presagi is the same one that the Brangelina family were staying in during the shooting of World War Z last summer.

One of the other on-set challenges to be faced was related to the practical matter of ensuring that all cars were left-hand drive and that the roads used for filming reflected the left-hand drive system in Italy and in Sicily. Sounds like a simple matter, but is really not.

“I have seen all the movies in the original language in which they were shot, ie in English and I’m quite satisfied with the result. So is Mediaset because we are already getting ready for the next locally filmed  production, which is Come Un Delfino. This will be the second season of the show, which has a massive following in Italy and which will star Raoul Bova and Ricky Memphis. Filming is scheduled to start next month and the whole cast will be staying here for weeks,” Winston tells me.

Amongst the locations that are earmarked for filming there are the National Pool, Tigne Point in Sliema, Mtarfa, the University, Naxxar and Zurrieq.

“Malta is actually scripted in so this is going to be another good showcase for us.”

As we speak, in fact, Winston is busy sorting out the offices for the multitude of people who are expected to descend on Malta for the production shortly. Once again, the movie will be using a good amount of Maltese cast and crew. And with names like Raoul Bova and Ricky Memphis, the weight of notching this up to Malta are definitely not to be discounted.

 

All photography courtesy of the Malta Film Commission. An edited version of  this interview was published on The TV Guide (Times of Malta).

 

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World War Z: interview with location manager Christian Mc Williams

 

Location manager World War Z

Photography by Matthew Mirabelli for The Times TV Guide

It’s been some months since cast and crew of World War Z decamped from Malta. And yet, some six months later,  Christian McWilliams is already back on our island to participate in the first Malta Film Commission Locations Seminar. When I meet him for the interview, he is enjoying his last day in Malta, making the most of the sun that only now deigned put in an appearance after a near three week absence.

Christian McWilliams’s is one of the most highly respected locations expert in the international film industry. His is the eye behind the spectacular locations in the recent Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol, where he was key assistant location manager responsible for the movie. Christian’s future within the movie industry was sealed at a very young age: on the day when his aunt, a renowned casting director in the UK, took him took him on the set of the first Superman movie. Christian was fifteen years old. There, her met actor Christopher Reeve, hobnobbed with cast and crew and was soon in love with vibe on set.

“I thought to myself, hmm… do I want a career in banking or do I want this?” he tells me with a chuckle.

Aged eighteen he got his first big break, working as runner on the second series of Inspector Morse.

“Inspector Morse was one of the biggest things on UK telly at the time. I was in heaven. One thing about the film industry, it’s not about studying or even about exams. It’s about being willing to work your way up from the bottom rung, always with a smile. And about a genuine love of the industry.”

And work his way up is exactly what Christian did.

“It’s really ironic. I used to earn 60 pounds a week as runner. Last summer we had juniors earning seventy euro a day on the set of World War Z. How the value of everything has changed… When you’re a junior on a movie set you really need to hope that you get the right opportunity that will allow you to make a name for yourself in the particular area you love. I was lucky because this is exactly what happened with me.”

Christian’s second big break, in fact, was when he landed a job as location assistant on the English period drama Howards End, starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson.

“The locations for that particular movie were amazing. Every scene looked like a picture postcard. It was like an advert for everything that England has to offer, practically a campaign for the UK tourist board. Everyone in England saw that movie. And my name was tied to it, so it gave me a name when I was still starting out. A movie like that stays with you and can make your career. I guess that’s what really put me on the map… I’m still in touch with some of the crew in fact, I learnt so much on set and I have fantastic memories of that time.”

The movie in fact went on to gross over 25 million dollars at the box-office when it first came out in 1992. It was entered as Official selection for Cannes International Film Festival and won the 45th Anniversary Award. In 1993, the film received nine Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture for Ismail Merchant and Best Director for James Ivory. The film won three awards, including for Best Art Direction (Luciana Arrighi and Ian Whittaker). Ruth Prawer Jhabvala earned her second Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, while Emma Thompson won the Academy Award for Best Actress. Saying that it’s the perfect production to have on your CV is an understatement.

Since then, Christian has been on a number of Hollywood blockbusters… Orlando, Alexander and Prince of Persia to name but three. And now, World War Z, starring Brad Pitt and Mireille Enos. Why was Malta picked for the soon-to-be blockbuster, I ask.

Filming of World War Z in Malta

Marsa turned out to be the place for a spot of zombie slaying

“Malta is already famous as a location simply because so many movies are being filmed here. World War Z was probably the biggest Hollywood production to shoot in Europe last year – and Malta was chosen, which says a lot. There were 577 crew members, at least 2,000 extras a day… massive production. There was such a lot to do. And there was trying to find an empty parking slot in Valletta, of course,” he continues with a laugh.

The invasion of people our island saw last summer did, in fact, create parking issues both for the filming people and for the Maltese themselves.

“I had to set up three different park and ride spots to cope with the demand. One for the crew, another for the extras and a third for the Lands Department because we had nicked all their spots. If Arriva were to employ me to oversee their park and ride issues I’m sure I’d solve all the problems for them,” he jokes.

The he gets serious and adds that in reality, Valletta is a dream to work in.

“I’ve done this in London, where it’s much worse. It’s the most difficult place, I think. I’ve also done it in Dubai on the set of Mission: Impossible 4. There we had a lovely valet system going with the crew arriving and leaving specific personnel to deal with car keys and with car park issues. Even in Malta, it got very close to a valet system at one point.”

He mentions how during those months he became “best buddies” with the Floriana Football Club, from which they rented the football pitch to use for parking.

“Everyone was very helpful and we were glad to create the extra business in Malta. Hey, I should be honorary member of the Floriana Football Club for life! I hope they got themselves a new centre-forward with the parking money we left them,” he chuckles some more. I chuckle with him… a Valletta girl, appreciative any time when the rival club gets a ribbing by someone else.

Christian continues to tell me that Malta was the immediate choice for World War Z. The crew included Oscar-winning cameraman Robert Richardson, whose input invaluable, especially when it came to eliminating excessive CGI animation.

World War Z in Malta

Filming in Masamxett Harbour in Valletta

 

“We were matching Malta with Jerusalem and at one point were relying heavily on CGI. In reality it’s something we try to avoid. At one point we had already picked Qawra and St Paul’s Bay to film but Robert suggested we switch location to Marsa. Well, you all know what Marsa is like. However, if you stand at one point and look in the distance towards Valletta you can see all the fortifications. This was exactly what we were after.”

Christian mentions that the help of the Maltese location team, led by Pierre Agius, was truly essential. Agius, he explains, essentially built a film set in the middle of the roadworks and traffic deviations that was Marsa at that time.

“I’m telling you it was blood, sweat and tears. But we managed. I left part of my heart in Malta. But I also left part of myself in Marsa. But the advantage of shooting in Marsa is that besides the fortifications in the distance you also had the sense of chaos that we needed for those scenes. We didn’t need to artificially re-create it, we found chaos there waiting for us.”

Christian has many highlights from his stay in Malta. Valletta, he tells me, tops the list. He describes how some of the streets look as if they’ve never been touched, how most of the buildings along Old Bakery Street seem enticingly abandoned.

“For a locations person, that’s the ultimate. You see an abandoned building, you want to see what’s on the other side of the door! There are also so many Palazzi that are empty it’sunbelievable. We got permission to enter and film in some of them. You wouldn’t believe what’s inside. It’s like a piece of history. I think I visited about 70 houses in Valletta.”

Another place that enchanted him was The Silver Horse, an old Bulgarian dancing bar in Strait Street. He describes the “appalling decor, kitschy furniture” and even the used glasses that were still on the counter.

“It was like a dream come true for a location scout. Like a treasure trove.”

And, because Malta has such close ties to the British, some of the memories Christian created here are personal.

“I went to see the War Museum and to look at the pictures of The Illustrious. I managed to find photos of my grandfather, who was serving in Malta at the time. The connection to Britain here is still very strong. Sometimes I’ll be having coffee outside somewhere, and it is almost like I’m in the UK. Then suddenly you hear someone speak Maltese… it is such a charming mix.”

Zombified!

The attractions of Malta for the film industry are various, he tells me. Some come here simply to make use of the tank in Rinella. Others shoot here because of the colour of the sea, or maybe because of the weather…the financial incentives are pretty amazing too, he adds. Then there is the fact that the people who were in filming here have been steeped in the industry for generations.

“The crew you get in Malta usually have a very good CV. I was talking to this guy, he had been on the set of Midnight Express and still worked in filming to this day. He was describing how he likes to watch the movie again and again because the cast included some of his friends who today are with us no longer. These people usually transmit their love of film to the next generation… the history here is very interesting.”

During the three months he spent here Christian immersed himself quite fully in the local lifestyle. He mentions Paceville and St Julian’s with a laugh, adding mischievously that the area should be “bigger”. A good portion of those who work in the filming industry are still young and appreciate a good night out on town, he adds.

“I have to say I dropped quite a bit of money in Paceville myself. It can be fun. Of course there were also the days when I wanted something simpler, such as sitting on the water’s edge in Valletta with my feet dangling in the water until midnight, enjoying a drink at one of the homey bars on the coast. I used to visit Marsaxlokk every Sunday – I had my first taste of octopus in Malta. I visited a re-enactment festival in Zebbuġ. It was quite an experience. I tend to fall in love with wherever I’m staying and that helps me do the job well.”

When he is not travelling across the globe, Christian lives with his wife and family in Morocco. Morocco is, in fact, considered one of Malta’s biggest rivals locations-wise. Christian acknowledges this and says that Morocco offers a bigger diversity of locations. However, Malta is generally considered safer and more financially viable. This doesn’t mean can sit on our laurels. There are things that need to be done in order for us to develop our full potential, he says.

“Malta doesn’t offer filming studios. I’m talking about huge warehouses that can be used for filming. Marsa contains a number of such warehouses that can be transformed for filming purposes. They’re abandoned, full or boats that are just rotting away. It’s a crime if nothing is made of them, seeing as how there are directors who are crying for a studio to shoot in. Studio space is a must.”

He also mentions that not enough importance is being given as yet to the idea of showcasing our filming industry: as an example, he mentions that as an entity, the Malta Film Commission needs to grow both in terms of space and in terms of human resources.

“Malta is competing on an international stage! If it wants to keep its position at the forefront more investment, more funding, a bigger Malta Film Commission…all these things are essential. If you look at Film Commissions in other countries, they have enormous facilities, their premises include screening rooms, film museums…this is Malta’s flagship with the international industry.”

Christian also believes that Malta should be more eager to take up opportunities to showcase its treasures. He mentions his disappointment at the fact that despite a number of attempts none of the World War Z cast and crew managed to view the Hypogeum.

“I am aware that these treasures need to be protected and, of course, there is a queue. However, when you have so many big names present in Malta I believe it makes sense to facilitate access, within reason, to treasures like the Hypogeum instead of making them join a three-month long queue. To give you an example, our crew included people who have worked on Indiana Jones. All it takes is for one of these to be struck by the structure of the Hypogeum and re-build a model to be used on some blockbuster. The mileage that Malta would get out of something like that is incredible and I think that the Maltese have not really realised this yet,” he concludes.

This interview was published on The TV Guide (Times of Malta).

 

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An open letter to Mintoff

Poster for movie about Dom MintoffThis 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

Dear Dom

Film-maker Pierre Ellul, photographed by Jason Borg for The Times TV Guide.

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).

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