Heading for the jury: Michelle Gruppetta is Malta representative for 27Times Cinema

Currently completing her final year in a BA in Character Animation at The Animation Workshop, a prestigious institution in Viborg, Denmark, Michelle Gruppetta speaks to TEODOR RELJIC about being chosen as Malta’s new representative for 27Times Cinema, an EU-wide initiative which gives under-27s from all member states the opportunity to serve as Jury Members for the Giornate degli Autori selection at the Venice Film Festival

Michelle Gruppetta
Michelle Gruppetta

First of all, how does it feel to be selected to serve as Malta’s representative at 27 Times Cinema? What led you on this path, and what do you hope to get out of it?

I really feel honored to have been picked to be Malta’s representative! I’ve been wanting to attend for years, but the timing never seemed right, so I’m really glad I could make it for this edition. Two friends of mine had previously been selected in the preceding years, and hearing about this experience drove me to apply for this edition. I can’t wait to see some really fantastic films and connect with other film lovers from all over the world, but what I really hope to get out of it is to broaden my network within the industry.

Like most lines of work, it’s really important to meet people because you never know where the next interesting opportunity might arise, and I feel that attending this festival is coming at an excellent time now that I’m nearing the end of my education and hoping to tentatively begin making steps towards a career in directing. I feel that coming from an education in animation certainly encourages me to make the most out of this opportunity, and try to learn from the countless professionals that will be there.

Your background is informed by comic book art and animation. When did your passion for the moving image first start, and how did you set about developing it further?

I’ve always been super interested in storytelling since I was really young, which is why comics and animation really appeal to me as mediums: they’re such strong storytelling tools. I got very casually into art when I was around 16 and had toyed with the idea of animation as a career, but only at 18 did I start thinking that I could turn it into a real possibility. I had been studying Biology and Chemistry at the University of Malta, when I realised that I really, really wasn’t into it, and changed course to do a Diploma in Design Foundation Studies.

I thought that I would see how studying a year of design went, and that if I liked it, I would pursue animation. Well, I loved it, so I decided to get serious about making a portfolio for my current university. Even though I went to my current university with the intention to study 2D and 3D animation, I came out with a love of directing and storyboarding, which is where I want to focus my energy on.

Ephemeral Paradises by Enzo Piantanida
Ephemeral Paradises by Enzo Piantanida

You are also currently studying animation at the prestigious Animation Workshop school in Viborg, Denmark. What has that experience taught you and, importantly, what do you think you’ve gained from it that you wouldn’t have gained in Malta, perhaps?

The community feeling of the school is certainly a big part of it all. Studying at The Animation Workshop has been a fantastic experience that I wouldn’t trade for anything. Aside from learning the technical side of animation, I’ve also learned so much more from my fellow students and teachers. I think being in a community of people who really love animation definitely helped inform and strengthen the way I approach things in my own work.

What would you say were some of the most significant professional and artistic experiences for you so far? How have they informed your outlook on the process of storytelling, animation and filmmaking, and how will you bring this insight to bear during your 27Times Cinema experience?

I think directing a project called ‘All up in your business’ for EDRi (a Belgium based NGO) and the current project I’m directing for another NGO, Effervescent (UK based, Lonely Not Alone campaign) are very important projects for me. Even though they’re not personal projects, I enjoy the challenge of having to deliver a narrative within very specific limitations to craft an emotional story within a very short timeframe. So they’ve definitely helped sharpen my skills on trying to reach the core of a story and do away with anything that muddies the waters or is unnecessary.

I think knowing what goes into making a film helps me appreciate what other film makers try to do, and also gives me a sharper more analytical eye when it comes to judging films to see if they fundamentally work or not.

Could you tell us a little bit about your upcoming animated short, Ouroboros?

The short is still in its very early stages, and I’m about to start pre-production in the coming months. It’s set in Malta and, to put it simply, it’s about two sisters who struggle with the same addiction to consuming magical creatures while dealing with their very tenuous and recently renewed relationship, all the while also trying to cope with the insidious cycle of emotional manipulation in families. I’m very excited (and nervous) about working on this project!

Still from ‘All up in your business’ by Michelle Gruppetta, created for Belgian NGO EDRi
Still from ‘All up in your business’ by Michelle Gruppetta, created for Belgian NGO EDRi

Could you tell us a little bit more about the Maltese element of Ouroboros? How does Malta factor into its stories and visuals?

Although it’s set in Malta, this is not an important plot point. I set Ouroboros here because I feel very strongly about having a Maltese animation scene, and I want to bring our particular culture, aesthetic, language and problems to cinemas and festivals abroad. We are a very particular country, whatever you think of it, be it positive or negative, and I want us to leave our mark as a people on cinema.

What do you make of the Maltese film and visual arts scene? What would you change about it?

I’m a little out of touch with the local scene, but I have mixed feelings about it. On one hand I think the quality of the films and productions that are being made are only getting better and better so I’m very impressed and optimistic about the future for local talent, which I think is very important to nurture! On the other hand, it’s very clear that there is a lack of interest from the authorities in nurturing this scene in Malta, as evidenced by the cancellation of the Valletta Film Festival (VFF), which is a huge blow to the Maltese film scene, and replacing it with any Hollywood blockbuster film that you could find online. The VFF is an incredibly important event for more than just watching movies, but also for local professionals and amateurs to network and learn from professionals from abroad. Funding is also pretty poor in Malta. It’s true that you can make excellent things with low budgets, but animation is particularly expensive so it makes producing Maltese animation more of a challenge than perhaps what you would find in other countries. I think there definitely needs to be more of a financial and cultural investment in the Maltese film scenes. We have a lot of talent and potential here, and it’s a pity not to showcase it.

What advice would you give to fellow up-and-coming Maltese animators/visual artists/filmmakers?

Now more than ever there are tons of resources online to teach yourself animation and filmmaking if university is not a viable option for you. Take advantage of that, take advantage of the people around you and don’t hesitate to reach out to people you admire or want to learn from. Most people are happy to help. And most importantly, build a community of other people who also want to learn animation or filmmaking around you. You will learn and motivate each other, and I think this is definitely the most vital part to successfully starting: just feeding off each other’s energy and love for animation.

The selection process for Maltese candidates for 27Times Cinema was coordinated by Spazju Kreattiv