Everyone who watches movies, from the most renowned film critic to the occasional moviegoer, knows what the tiny European nation of Malta looks like. Yes,
they’ve all seen its great vistas, ancient ruins, and the Mediterranean Sea that surrounds the island. Unfortunately, few of them are aware that the land
on which various Hollywood stars become legendary heroes is in fact the small republic and not a more popular vacation destination on mainland Europe.
Malta has become a commodity for the film industry passing as an epic battleground or an exotic romantic getaway. There are in fact films being made in
Malta, but they are not at all Maltese films.
Serving as a canvas for foreign talent to create enormous works of fiction is usually all the glory this unique country gets. Hollywood’s interest is
undoubtedly beneficial as it creates jobs for the locals and provides experience to the Maltese youth interested in working in film. One of these young
talents is director Rebecca Cremona. She began working on set when big budget productions came to Malta and required extra help. She was learning how to make films without much precedent in terms of a national industry in which Maltese filmmakers could tell their own stories. With a population of just
over 400,000 people, Malta doesn’t’ have the infrastructure or funding required to developed a viable film industry, at least for now.
Cremona studied film production in Los Angeles, but she always knew her debut feature would have to be a Maltese story. Eventually she became aware of an
important issue in her home country, illegal immigration. Being a bridge between North Africa and Western Europe, the island has become a prime location
for desperate immigrants from Africa and the Middle East looking to escape the terrible conditions at home. With such limited space and
resources, the advent of immigration has become a divisive subject for the tight-knit Maltese society. Rebecca Cremona felt the need to address this by making a
film about one of the most famous cases surrounding the issue in Malta. In this story a local fisherman had to question his own humanity when confronted with
a group of immigrants lost at sea. Saving them and putting himself at risk would alter the course of his life and the way Maltese people look at the complex subject.
Her film “Simshar” is the most ambitious national production ever made in the country and it has become Malta’s first ever official submission to the
Academy Awards in the Best Foreign Language category. Thanks to their determination, Cremona and her team have taken important steps towards creating
opportunities for Maltese filmmaker sand reclaiming their cinema. They want to become a filmmaking nation rather than a just film location.
Charming director Rebecca Cremona met with us recently in Los Angeles to talk extensively about her impressive debut, which also helped her sign with
Beverly Hills-based talent management company Management 360.
Carlos Aguilar: How did you become aware of this unbelievable story? What was it about it that made you decide this had to be turned into a film?
I was here in L.A. studying, but I would always check the Maltese newspapers online. In the summer of 2008 there were so many articles about this family
and what had happened to them. It was very intense. That Christmas when I went home I was asking people about this event. Even though I had read about what
happened it was not the same as if I had been in Malta when it occurred.
One of the persons I was asked told me, “You know I actually know the guy. I can take you to meet him if you want.” At the time I just thought it would be
interesting to meet someone that had gone through something like that. I went to meet him and it turned out it was a very rough time for him. Six months
after what happened his wife left him and took their child. He went from being a national hero to being questioned by authorities about what really
happened. Some people thought he should have been charged with manslaughter.
When I met him he was spending his days in his house with the curtains drawn during the day and drinking Bailey’s – which is not really a manly for a
fisherman[Laughs]. He really wanted to talk so I kept coming back to talk to him for about a week literally spending hours and hours talking everyday. We
were even making Christmas pastries together. He really needed someone to talk to. It was very interesting. I thought it would make an amazing documentary
because there was a lot of coverage on the news.
Then I told him, “It was amazing that you were out there in the sea for 7 days and nobody saw you even though there is a lot of traffic in the
Mediterranean Sea.” He said, “What makes you think nobody saw us? “ I asked him, “What do you mean?” and he replied, “People saw us they just didn’t pick
us up.” Because of all the news coverage everyone assumed that the only reason why they had not been picked was because they were not seen. That was the
wrong the assumption. They were seen but they were ignored.
At first I was in disbelief, but then I started talking to fishermen and to cargo ship captains. The captains would tell me that the insurance companies
would brief them on how to avoid immigrants. Then the fishermen would tell me how sometimes when they would see immigrants in the sea, but if they picked
them up they had to face the police because the authorities wanted to make sure that they weren’t smuggling them in. Then I spoke to people who have their
own sailing boats and who have seen immigrants in the water and hadn’t pick them. I asked them why didn’t they pick them up, and one of them told me that
he was alone in the boat and was afraid that if he picked up these 12 strong African men they would take over the boat. There were all these gray areas to
what had happened and I felt like there was a story there.
Also in 2008 but in September, there was a Turkish merchant vessel that rescued immigrants in the sea between Malta and the Italian island of Lampedusa.
Among these people there was a 19-year-old pregnant girl and neither government allow them to disembark. I thought of all these things and I decided this
was the story I wanted to tell, and now we are here after 6 years of my life spent on this project [Laughs].
Aguilar: Given Malta’s geographical location between Africa and Europe, illegal immigration must be a big issue for people there.
Yes, Malta is an island between the two continents. When I started doing my research the issue had started becoming more prominent, but most people didn’t
know about immigrants being left at sea. At first I thought, “By the time I’m done with this film this probably won’t even be an issue anymore.” But now
it’s even more of an issue. Just this past summer there were 3000 deaths at sea that the government knows about. Now there are people coming not only from
Sub-Saharan Africa, but also from Syria and Egypt.
Last October marked the one-year anniversary of a horrible tragedy in which 70 Syrian immigrant children died because the boat they were in capsized.
Because of the war in Syria and the problems in most of Africa there are more and more deaths every year in the Mediterranean. It’s terrible.
Aguilar: Tell me about the Maltese people’s reaction to the film. Has the film opened there yet?
The film opened in Malta a few months back and it was a big hit because in Malta there are no Maltese films. It’s interesting for people to see an actual
Maltese film. I was a bit worried about the reception in Malta because it’s such a difficult issue to address due to the fact that the country is very
small and very densely populated. It’s also a country that has experienced a past of colonization. We only became an independent republic in 1964. We are a
young republic and we are bit defensive, that’s why the issue is extremely controversial.
What I thought was interesting is that the film puts the Maltese people in the immigrant’s place and people seem to respond to that. I think for Maltese
people this is not a movie just about immigration, it’s about a lot of other things especially about the tension between tradition and progress. In Malta
you feel this transition very strongly because it’s a very traditional society. When change comes we feel it, we notice it right away.
Aguilar: Since Malta is so close to Italy geographically one could assume that both countries are culturally similar, but your film shows otherwise. It
seems like Malta is its own microcosm.
Malta is simultaneously very isolated and very connected to the rest of the world. It’s a dichotomy. Apart from politically being an independent republic,
Maltese is a Semitic language like old Arabic with Italian, French and English influences and it’s written in Roman characters. It’s the only language in
the world that has a Semitic base but is written in Roman characters. It’s only spoken in this country of 400, 000 people, which is smaller than
California’s Catalina Island. It’s very particular. I always wanted my first feature film to be done in Malta because it’s such a unique blend of things.
Aguilar: Usually Malta is mostly used as a location for big studio productions. It must be a strange feeling to be the prime location for so many films
and not have an industry of your own.
“By the Sea” with Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt just wrapped in Malta recently, and before that there was “Clavius” with
Joseph Fiennes and Tom Felt. When I was younger I started working in film in Spielberg’s “Munich” because it was filming in Malta. Then
there was Alejandro Amenavar’s “Agora. ”
Before I was old enough to work on set there was “Troy,” “Gladiator,” “Cutthroat Island” and all these
films. It was so interesting that on “Simshar” a lot of the department heads were Maltese people who had been working in costumes and
makeup for years and years with the best people in Hollywood, but they had never been able to head their own department. It was really a national effort.
Aguilar: How did local people react to film while we were shooting? Were they supportive despite the subject the film deals with?
While shooting we were worried that because this film was about a controversial issue we wouldn’t be welcome in certain areas of the country. On the
contrary, people everywhere were very excited. They would say things like, “Oh my God, our village is actually going to be our village for once on a film”.
They would offer us coffee or tea. Some of them would ask, “Can I look through the balcony while you shoot? I promise I won’t look at the camera.” It was
amazing. They thought, “For once we are doing our thing, our own film.”
Aguilar: Writing a script that needed to include several different perspectives and nuances about the issue must have been a rigorous endeavor.
It was a very difficult process. When I look back I ask myself, “Why on Earth did you do this to yourself on your first film?” I could have done a film
about two people in a room or something else [Laughs]. It was very interesting because there were several things that worried me a lot. One was that I felt
there needed to be enough information about Malta in the film. If you set a story in London people already have an understanding of London as a city, but
most people don’t have any sort of idea about Malta.
There needed to be sufficient information there for people to find this place recognizable enough to relate to, but it also needed to be unique enough to
be true to its particularities. Then there was the whole context regarding immigration. I didn’t want to portray it as something that is right or wrong.
Instead, I wanted to give people enough information to understand it but also show the complexities of the issue. At the same time, “Simshar” is not a film
about the statistics and numerical details. It was very important to include the context because I felt like audiences would find it incredibly hard to
believe people would see immigrants in the water and not pick them up.
Aguilar: It seems like an issue like this is maximized given the scarce space and resources in such a small country.
Malta is one of the most densely populate countries in the world, and it is tiny. Even a small number of people arriving are noticed. This is a difficult
issue with a lot of gray areas. On the one hand you have all these people dying while looking for refuge. They risk their lives to find it and they would
rather put their kids on those boats, even knowing that maybe a week before people died on it, rather than stay in their homeland. They are escaping for
very valid reasons. On the other hand you have to think about how all this people are going to survive in such a small country. 400, 000 people live in
Malta and even they are struggling. These are tough times all over the world. Of course, everything is relative. Tough times in Africa are not the same as
tough times in Spain. Regardless people are trying to survive.
Aguilar: In terms of financing and infrastructure, how difficult was it to get the film made since there isn’t much of a precedent in Malta?
It was simultaneously difficult and easy in the sense that the things that made it so difficult were the same things that encourage people to take a leap
of faith. They thought, “This is a first. This is a great opportunity and it’s something special. It’s impossible for it to happen, so let’s do it!”
[Laughs]. The things that could have made it impossible to make, made it all the more possible to make.
The film fund in Malta was essentially set up around “Simshar.” We were the first film to get support for production. We were the first in many aspects
because there is an infrastructure in Malta for service, but there is no infrastructure for indigenous films. It was a mix of private investments,
government support, the film fund, other organizations giving us in-kind support, and everyone’s sweat and blood. Everything had to be done from scratch
Aguilar: Since not many films are made in Malta is there a great number of working actors? Tell me about the casting process for “Simshar” and how you
found people to play the diverse roles.
As a director one of the biggest challenges for me was the fact that the cast was coming from very diverse backgrounds. Some of them had a lot of
experience, some had no experience at all, and some of them were playing themselves. For example, the refugees in the film were real refugees. They would
often share their experiences with me. They would tell me, “You know miss, when this happened to us we did this and then this.” We would sit down and
rework the story to fit those authentic elements in the film.
Then there was Clare Agius who plays Sharin. She is a television personality in Malta and she had worked briefly in theater before. Lotfi Abdelli, who plays Simon, is
a star in Tunisia and he had to learned Maltese for the part. He is a very seasoned actor. The man who plays Simon’s father is an actual fisherman. We also
had Laura Kpegli who plays Mkeda, the immigrant woman who is translating on the boat, and Sékouba Doucouré who playa Moussa, the Malian guy is on the fishing boat with the family. Both of them are French
actors who have been in films that have premiere in the Critics’ Week at Cannes. There was a great mix of talent.
Aguilar: The title, “Simshar,” of all the things you could have called this story why did you feel that was particularly fitting?
I think the people on the boat are literally vessel to express what this issue is about. When I found that Simon had been seen but not rescued I thought
about how human value is not the same for everyone. If the people on the boats had known that the ones in the ocean were Maltese they would have rescued
them. Since they thought they were African immigrants they didn’t pick them up.
I wanted to put those people who have “value” in the place of those who don’t, maybe this way people will question why we think some people are valuable
and others are not. That’s why I decided to call it “Simshar.” This is also very telling of a habit we have in Malta to name boats and houses the
amalgamation of the names of the couple that owns them. In this case it was Simon + Sharin = Simshar. It also has to do with the duality of thing and how
Malta is a combination of things. It also sounds like a real world but it’s not [Laughs].
Aguilar: Were you concerned at all about some people finding the film heavily political?
I find it very interesting when political things become personal and when personal things become political. You can have a very small story or incident,
which can have a lot of political repercussions. If something happens to me is not about the individual or the specific thing I’m doing at that moment,
it’s about the big political forces and how they affect me. Most of the problems we face exist because most people think, “That’s a big political issue,
that has nothing to do with me, “ and that’s why it’s so easy for some to dismiss immigration. But these issues do affect us, on many levels.
Aguilar: This is the first ever Maltese Oscar submission. It must be very special for you to be in this position.
It’s exciting and it’s a big responsibility. I try not to think too much about it otherwise I wouldn’t get things done [Laughs]. What’s so nice about this
is that we set a precedent because it was so difficult to make this film. It was really a national effort. It’s great that a film that was made so
collaboratively then goes on to represent our little nation for the first time.
Aguilar: Do you hope “Simshar” encourages more indigenous production in Malta?
I really hope so. In Europe there is a whole funding structure to help European films, but Malta is not eligible because you need to have a precedent in
order to qualify. It’s a catch 22. Hopefully “Simshar” becomes a precedent that opens doors for us to join that funding network. Now there is more of a
financing infrastructure in Malta, and having “Simshar” be a contender on the international level will be vey encouraging for other people trying to make
films in our country