Evocative tale of guilt and self-discovery | Alex Camilleri

Teodor Reljic speaks to Malta-born filmmaker Alex Camilleri about his freshly-made new short, Prickly Pear, which will make its debut at the prestigious Toronto Kids International Film Festival early next week

The main cast and crew of Prickly Pear, from left: Iskander Zul Qarnen, Alex Camilleri (writer-director), Ryan Gatt (producer) and Andrew Mallia
The main cast and crew of Prickly Pear, from left: Iskander Zul Qarnen, Alex Camilleri (writer-director), Ryan Gatt (producer) and Andrew Mallia

Could you tell us a little bit about the plot of Prickly Pear? How did you first start sketching out the idea, and at which point did you decide it would make a good short film?

Prickly Pear tells the story of a boy who feels guilty that he told his sister she could eat the prickly pears that were meant for their grandmother’s birthday. He embarks on a mission to secure replacement fruit, but the task isn’t as easy as he expects and his quest to right his wrong means quite a distance to travel.

A few years ago, I was making a film in Haiti and my nanna complained, “Haiti? When are you going to make a film here?” I grew up in the US and had always dreamed of making a film in Malta. I realised I better not upset my grandmother any longer, so I started writing this film.

The prickly pear is often directly associated with Malta. Were you self-consciously trying to make a film that has strong echoes of the island, or was the human story at its centre always foremost in your mind?

In one sense, yes, the prickly pear was chosen because I was writing the film to be set in Malta. But I was reaching beyond “tokenism”. I designed the film to have the feeling somewhat of a fable. 

Therefore, I needed to be able to convey the story in a kind of iconographic register. Road, cliff, water, dust, prickly pear — these aren’t just locations or props, they have internal meanings that the audience can apprehend on quite an intuitive level. As a writer, the prickly pear itself was fantastic because it was specific to Malta and also carried a kind of symbolism I felt was germane to my story; that we must pass the thorns to taste life’s sweetness.

On that note, do you think Maltese filmmakers should strive to give a ‘Maltese’ stamp on their work, or should they just focus on making good films, period?

I think it’s quite dangerous for any filmmaker to allow their work to be influenced by such things. Conforming to some set of expectations based on nationality is as an doomed affair as seeking approval of the critical establishment. Ultimately, the logic is backwards and won’t sustain you for very long. 

No great director wakes up to the very difficult work of filmmaking, thinking, “I’m Polish, therefore I film.” We don’t love Kieslowski for any other reason than that he showed us a way of seeing the world, that he rendered our lived experiences through such beautiful and devastating dramas. 

The filmmaker should respond to what is inside of them; this is much stronger stuff to build from and, truthfully, it makes the resulting work far more enjoyable to watch. 

Andrew Mallia and Iskander Zul Qarnen in Prickly Pear
Andrew Mallia and Iskander Zul Qarnen in Prickly Pear

What would you say are some of the main challenges that Maltese filmmakers face, and do you believe there should be better infrastructural support for Maltese filmmakers?

The main challenges for filmmakers are the same in Malta as anywhere else. It’s never about having the right equipment or enough money; money doesn’t make films, people do. The main challenge is when the filmmaker sits in front of a blank page and asks herself, “What do I want to say?” Everything else is secondary to this. And especially in the digital era, the bar to entry is nonexistent. So really, you are left with no excuses. Whether a film succeeds or not, it won’t be because you had a great tripod.

As a US resident, what was it like for you to engage in this Malta-US co-production?

To echo my previous answer, I knew that if I didn’t find the right collaborators, there would be no film. So it was with a great stroke of luck that I met producer Ryan Gatt early on in the process. Ryan is also a director of his own films, so I immediately had confidence that he understood how to make this kind of “micro-budget” short. 

Truthfully, someone who has produced a Hollywood-sized production would not be qualified to produce Prickly Pear. Ryan brought a flexibility and tenacity that are indispensable to independent filmmaking. He also introduced me to so many wonderful and like-minded collaborators who filled out the rest of our crew.

How does it feel to be taking Prickly Pear to the Toronto Kids International Film Festival? What do you hope to gain from this experience?

TIFF is an extraordinary opportunity for us and not just because it is one of the largest and most revered festivals in the world. Of all the places we could have our world premiere, Toronto also happens to have a community of Maltese expats. The “ground game” of promoting the film has been so rewarding because we’ve been welcomed with open arms by friends and family in the Maltese community. In fact, through this process I discovered a long-lost branch of my family tree!

What’s next for you?

I’m preparing a feature length film, also to be set in Malta. It’s very different… Stay tuned!

Prickly Pear will be screened at the Bell Lightbox Theatre, Toronto on April 10, 13, 14 and 16. Its cast includes Andrew Mallia and Iskander Zul Qarnen, with supporting roles by Aimee Vassallo, Andre Farrugia, Clare Agius and Stephen Buhagiar. The film is produced by 360 Pictures. More information: www.pricklypearmovie.com