Malta has so many worlds to discover | Rebecca Anastasi

Malta-made short film ‘Luzzu’ has wowed international audiences, and earned high praise from movie critics. Producer REBECCA ANASTASI explains why a low-budget film, about a humble Maltese fisherman, somehow managed to strike such a profound chord

Rebecca Anastasi (photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday)
Rebecca Anastasi (photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday)

Malta is in the process of starting up its own indigenous film industry. But the domestic market – for films, as for everything else – is far too small to ever be economically viable. Simply put: for a Maltese film to be successful… it has to be exported; which also means it has to have some sort of international appeal. Does this place any constraints on the type of films we can actually produce?   

Far from ‘placing any constraints’, I would say it opens up a world of opportunities, at the end of the day. When we look at the European film market in general, what we see is a similar situation in some respects: in many countries, the local market is likewise small; so by definition, they have to export their films, too.

But it’s positive to export your work. It projects a voice for your country, on the international stage. And besides: a good, well-told story will always have an appeal across the board.  I grew up watching movies from mainly America and the UK – because that was our ‘film diet’, so to speak – but I also read novels from all over the globe. That didn’t stop me from empathizing with the characters. In fact, it often works the other way round.

As Alex Camilleri [‘Luzzu’ director] recently said: sometimes, it is in the most specific of stories, and the most specific of circumstances, that you see those universal ideas, feelings and emotions that cut right through international boundaries...

Yet surely it would have a bearing on such issues as, for instance, whether a film gets funding or not. So to put the question another way: if someone has an idea for a Malta-based film, and applies for funding (as was the case with ‘Luzzu’) through the Malta Film Fund… wouldn’t that decision ultimately rest on the international marketability of the film in question?

The way I see it: if you’re writing a script, based on how you’re going to market the film afterwards… then you’re starting off on the wrong foot. First of all, you need to look at the story. Will it work? Is it compelling? What sort of audience would want to watch it? Those are the important aspects: at least, when it comes to putting the script together.

Having said this: wearing my producer’s hat… yes, I would naturally want to be sure that I can also market and sell the film afterwards. But I think that, at this stage of the game in Malta – where we are still trying to build a local film industry, from the ground up – we need to be looking at the types of story that we can actually tell; and at the quality of the films that we can realistically produce. Whether those films are exportable or not, however will ultimately depend on whether they have that solid, creative flair… so it has to start with the film idea, really.

As a producer, it is part of your job to assess a script idea, to determine – among other things – whether it has the potential to be successful on that level. Applying that to ‘Luzzu’: what was it, exactly, that you saw in this idea that had that sort of potential?

There were various factors. When Alex pitched the idea to me… first of all, the original story idea was quite different from the finished product. It evolved quite a lot – as films always do - from the concept stage, to production. But some things remained constant throughout: from the outset, he [Alex] specifically made mention of using non-actors; of real locations; of the importance of language… and from the outset, I had a gut feeling that those elements would work.

But as the idea evolved, he rooted himself completely in the world of the Maltese fisherman. And that is a very specific world – but also, one which has a certain resonance to all people, everywhere.

The world we live in is, at the end of the day, changing on a global level. There are many people who feel left behind; and who are constantly on the backfoot. Because the systems and structures, that make up our world today, do not work for everyone. I would actually say they work only for a very specific set of people; but not for the rest of us out here.

So really, anyone can empathise with [main character] Jesmark, in the film. Because Jesmark is not just ‘a fisherman’; he is also anyone who has ever struggled to make ends meet; anyone who has ever doubted whether what they were doing, would lead to what they actually needed. Is ‘doing what you love’ – in this case, fishing – going to give you what you need, to survive? That is a big question for all of us…

But of course, resources in Malta are extremely limited, when it comes to local film. So one other important element was the ability to adapt, in any way we could, to any given situation. And luckily, Malta also has its advantages as a location. There is a certain – how can I put it? – ‘joy’ in our surroundings. For instance, we shot in Marsaxlokk, Birzebbugia and Ghar Lapsi… and the natural materials we were given – including the carpenter’s workshop, where we filmed: which is exactly as it is in real life; the bay; the restaurants; the kitchens – none of it really needed any work at all...

Malta has, as you say, its restrictions; and one of them is that there may be limits to how much, or how often, the same locations can be used in film. The Grand Harbour, for instance, has been forever labelled as ‘Marseilles’ by ‘The Count of Montecristo’; and projected into the future… doesn’t that also mean we will eventually run out of original film locations?

No, I don’t think so. Because there are so many different worlds within our island; for such a small country, there really is a lot to play with; a lot that we can do. But yes, I would generally agree that we need to step away from the more obvious, recognizable locations… the sweeping landscapes, the panoramic views, and so on…. and instead, focus more on the little corners of the island; the unexplored nooks and crannies, which is where you are likely to find the truly interesting stories to begin with. And Alex was, in fact, adamant about this from the very beginning; he did not want the traditional ‘picture-postcard’ look for Luzzu…

One other aspect of Malta’s use as a film-location, is that – thanks to a highly successful film-servicing industry, over the years – we have grown accustomed to hosting big-budget foreign productions such as ‘Gladiator’, ‘Munich’, etc. Naturally, we can’t possibly compete with that: but to quote Martin Bonnici [director of ‘Is-Sriep Regghu Saru Velenuzi’], this situation “has given some people a very narrow view of what filmmaking actually is.” Do you agree with that statement?

Certainly, those big-budget productions are… ‘intoxicating’. But we definitely cannot allow ourselves to fall under their spell. A Maltese film industry that is modelled on that of the USA, or UK…. that’s clearly a non-starter. We don’t have the resources to produce films on that sort of scale. It’s just not going to happen.

So instead, we should be looking closer to home.  We need to look at other small European countries, and see what they’re doing there: places like Estonia, Iceland… even Cyprus: where - though they did not have a tax rebate, like we do, until recently - they still managed to produce and export a few highly successful local films.

In a sense, it’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation. The problem in Malta is a holistic one; we have issues, not only with audience development, but also with distribution…

How do you mean, ‘audience development’?

Let me put it this way: it’s not just the sort of foreign productions that Malta attracts as a film-location. It’s also the sort of films that get screened in Maltese cinemas. Generally, these tend to be mainstream international titles: which, to be fair, is the same across large parts of the world.

But if we limit ourselves only to that… if we do not import the sort of films that could also inspire tomorrow’s Maltese filmmakers… how can we get them to imagine what sort of films they themselves can create?

This is, in fact, something we tried to break away from, with the Valletta Film Festival. We tried to screen films in Malta, which – apart from providing local audiences with a more varied film diet – could also spur local film-makers to say: ‘You know what? I can do that, too…’  It’s something I find myself thinking all the time, when watching films at European festivals. ‘This is the sort of film that could easily be made in Malta…’

But unless we start exposing audiences, from a very young age, to the sheer variety of work that is out there… they are, as you say, only going to think about ‘film’ in terms of Hollywood, and British mainstream titles.  And that’s not very helpful, at the end of the day.

To be fair, ‘Luzzu’ itself seems to have already broken that mould. It has been shown at some of the world’s most prestigious festivals, and has so far received rave international reviews. How do you yourself account for this success?

To be honest, when we were making the film, it was our hope and dream that we would be able to achieve that kind of success. Because – and this ties in what I was saying earlier, about audience expectations – ‘success’, in this industry, is not just about money. It’s not just about recouping your budget, and making a profit.

There’s much more to it than that. The success of a film is also measured by which festivals it gets screened at; what prizes it wins… this all impacts upon the film’s future distribution possibilities, too.

So for ‘Luzzu’ to have premiered at the Sundance festival was… let’s just say, a pretty huge deal for us. And so was the critical response. What they praised most, I would say, was the authenticity of the cast, and of the performances… and also, the beauty of the island.

On that level, the praise was almost gushing, in fact. Which brings me back to a point I made earlier: for all its restrictions, Malta has a lot going for it, as a film-making location. Natural lighting, for instance… we are incredibly lucky, to have both the amount, and quality, of sunlight that we have. And Malta films beautifully, too. It’s not just ‘Beauty with a capital B’; there is also a certain ‘rough’ beauty in our surroundings… very different from the picture-postcard look I mentioned earlier. And it is this type of beauty that we were very keen on showing, with ‘Luzzu’.  A beauty that arises from authenticity, rather than appearances: for instance, the rough side of how fishermen actually fish… the reality of being out at sea…

And there is still a lot of that kind of beauty to be explored here. There are still any number of stories that could be told…

Coming back to the issue of film audiences: while we have been brought up on a diet of major international productions, our actual expectations of local films may be considerably lower. To give an example: I recently attended the premier of ‘Sriep’… and one recurring comment, in the discussions afterwards, was: ‘For a Maltese production, it was really good…”   Do you feel that we may, perhaps, have a bit of an inferiority complex when it comes to filmmaking, too?

[Laughing] I know what you mean. And I’ve heard that sort of comment, too. But at the end of the day, it is all about mentality. Obviously, we can’t approach film-making on the premise that… ‘for a Maltese film, this is good enough’. Clearly, that won’t get us anywhere; because while it might ‘pass’ for a local audience… it’s not going to pass internationally.

On the other hand, however: we can’t go the other way, either. Sometimes, for instance, we are so insular, that we think we can do everything on our own: without any outside help, without any outside expertise. But the film industry doesn’t work like that. You need talent from many different places; you might need, for instance, a foreign script consultant; or to take your script to a workshop in Italy, or Germany. You might need a cinematographer, or a sound engineer, with a specific skill-set. Or maybe you will need post-production facilities, that can’t be found locally.

These are the realities of working on a film; but sometimes, I get the impression that here in Malta, we tend to be somewhat ‘territorial’. Even when it comes to collaborating with other local film-makers, for instance… we tend to put up walls between us: ‘I can do it, and I can do it on my own’.

But no: it doesn’t work like that. In film-making… it’s the team that counts, not the individual.

At the same time, however… I also think it’s because we’re desperate to be proud of our work. We’re desperate to be proud of our films, and of our art in general; and I think there’s a lot to be proud of, actually.

But we do have a long road ahead of us. We are still struggling, as an industry, to find our feet. But it doesn’t mean we have to make compromises. We have to be single-minded; we have to know where quality lies; and we have to just… go for it, really.