‘Good enough’ should not be good enough

As ‘Malta’s First Epic Movie’ makes its way to cinemas, the peculiar way we tend to let Maltese cultural products off the (critical) hook is examined.

Tenor Joseph Calleja, whose cousin Andrei Claude is Adormidera’s  star performer, also stars in the film, self-described as ‘Malta’s First Epic Movie’
Tenor Joseph Calleja, whose cousin Andrei Claude is Adormidera’s star performer, also stars in the film, self-described as ‘Malta’s First Epic Movie’

It's become something of a tourist-postcard cliché to praise Malta's bountiful natural beauty, historical heritage and wealth of creative talent - all despite the island's tiny size. The logical conclusion to this line of thinking, though, is slightly sinister: that anything produced in Malta, irrespective of its quality, automatically deserves attention - and even, perhaps, instant praise.

Call it what you will - 'post-colonial hangover' is probably the easiest go-to analysis - but this attitude towards local cultural products has reared its head again, with the release of locally produced medieval epic Adormidera in the Eden Cinemas last week.

Teodor Reljic reviews Adormidera - FILM

Given the red-carpet treatment and screened at Eden's coveted Cinema 16 (usually reserved for cream-of-the-crop Hollywood blockbusters), the intrinsic quality of Adormidera was either a foregone conclusion, or dismissed altogether as a priority. (Malta's own superstar tenor, Joseph Calleja, turns up in a cameo after all).

'Build it, and they will come', appears to be an adage more relevant to Malta than anywhere else. Though a far more local expression would do just as well: 'Tajjeb ghax Malti...'

Crit me, please

Whether it stems from basic insecurity or a form of overzealous - and misplaced - patriotism, the idea that we should treat Maltese cultural products with kid gloves appears to have taken root quite deeply, and it persists to this day. It's certainly an attitude that infiltrates my own profession. Personal experience - and that of some of my colleagues - has taught me that writing an unfavourable review - be it of a local theatre production, exhibition, film or anything else - often runs the risk of coming across as a personal slight, rather than an objective, dispassionate dissection of the work in question.

But not all local creatives are antsy about receiving criticism. In fact, back in 2011, prompted by an essay penned by Prof. Ivan Callus published in the international online literary journal 'Transcript', a group of writers confessed their craving for honest and considered criticism of their work.

Callus, Head of the Department of English at the University of Malta, pinpointed some of the key problems of Malta's literary culture. In the essay, Callus argues that while there's no shortage of books published in Malta, the lack of proper literary criticism belittles it all by default, because if you can't discuss the pros and cons of something in a frank and intelligent manner, you rob it of the opportunity to be placed within any form of literary context.

Responding to Callus's essay, author and poet Immanuel Mifsud illustrated this plight.

"I, for one, crave to know where my literature stands. How would a Marxist react to my work? Or a feminist? Or any other critic from any school of thought? I have no answer to my most basic questions about my own writing, and to be honest it is quite frustrating."

Commenting on another unfortunate aspect of Maltese critical culture, Mario Vella - frontman of folk-pop act Brikkuni - opined that "socialites disguised as critics single-handedly eradicated proper media coverage for the arts".

"Honest and (above all) informed criticism and reviews are a must if we really entertain any notions of ever emancipating ourselves. Having incompetent critics turn up only to redeem a complimentary ticket and sticking around for the free wine is counterproductive and annoying," Vella said back in 2011.

The perils of 'making do'

In the wake of the release of Adormidera, perhaps it's worth remembering that film is arguably a far more complicated can of worms on this front, compared to literature or music. Broadly speaking, films will generally cost more money. But partly for this reason, releasing a film comes with a 'wow' factor that's hard to beat - certainly if you're marketing your product as 'Malta's First Epic Movie' (to go by the tagline on Adormidera's poster). Because of the effort involved and money spent, you're more likely to be applauded for getting a film out of the door, not to mention the fact that films are easier to consume than books.

However, film scholar and festival director Charlie Cauchi - currently penning her PhD thesis on the Maltese film industry for Queen Mary, University of London - warns that "this feeling of national pride should not eclipse our assessment of what makes a film good".

In an indirect reference to previous productions - which could also be applied to Adormidera's epic ambitions - Cauchi says that while there is "nothing wrong with setting the bar high", Maltese films may stand to gain by looking away from Hollywood as a dominant influence.

"Let us embrace our scale and approach filmmaking in a way that makes sense for us, without compromising on creative integrity. We are not the only small nation in the world; many small cinemas thrive and can be inspiring models for a country like Malta."

Neither is this a reality that's lost on contemporary Maltese filmmakers; in fact, Cauchi adds that in her research, she's come across plenty of Maltese filmmakers who "have expressed the desire for more artistic guidance from established practitioners that are sympathetic to the challenges that filmmakers from smaller filmmaking ecologies face" - perhaps a lack that's being redressed in baby steps by the Valletta 2018 Foundation, which launched 'Story Works' earlier this year (an intensive workshop for aspiring screenwriters, led by internationally renowned tutors).

Self-awareness, in fact, is also an important factor in the whole equation. Filmmaker Martin Bonnici says that he became preoccupied with the lack of critical insight in Maltese culture after he began making films himself.

"I did become more interested when I decided to take a career in the creative sector more seriously and kept hearing it being used to justify one mess after another - including my own."

Though confessing that the phenomenon as a whole is one that could only be adequately tackled after "years of study and analysis", Bonnici singles out two particular factors as being key: Malta's geographical insularity - "not to say that Maltese culture is not enough, but ideas need to mix to evolve" - coupled with its colonial past, which, according to Bonnici, has fostered a habit of learning to simply "make do".

"That mentality is what got the Maltese people through some of the harshest times these islands have been through, but at the same time it's something that holds you back.

"Put these two elements together, and you have generations that grew up seeing little more than their immediate surroundings and having to make do with what little they had. So naturally you start to celebrate what little you have and end up saying 'Imma tajjeb ghal Malta' ['Ah well, it's good enough for Malta']."

It's not a game

We may have to look away from film to find an adequate counter-example to all of this. This year, the Malta-based independent digital games company Mighty Box released 'Will Love Tear Us Apart', an experimental (and sometimes deliberately exasperating) video game adaptation of Joy Division's classic relationship-breakdown anthem 'Love Will Tear Us Apart'.

Far from being limited to the Maltese sphere, the free-to-play game exploded upon release, scoring coverage from a plethora of the most prominent international publications, among them Spin and Rolling Stone.

Game designer and Mighty Box co-founder Gordon Calleja named the game's uncompromising nature as the key to its having garnered so much attention. (In an attempt to remain true to the pessimistic and emotionally wrenching spirit of the Joy Division song, the team decided against making the game outwardly 'fun'.)

But though, like Martin Bonnici - who claims that Malta's status as an EU member state leaves us with no excuse but to aim for an international standard - Calleja never saw the point of limiting his work to that of a Maltese audience, he does confess that the prevailing attitude towards standards in local culture has worked on him.

"I have to be honest and say throughout my life I have been so embarrassed by the majority of 'creative' work I've witnessed coming out of Malta - the piles of amateurish, derivative, shoddily executed cheese that's met with celebration and commendation - that I've reacted to it by being severely critical of what I do. That has both its good sides and bad sides. Now that I'm working in a team to make games, it's not exactly great for the other guys to constantly hear me whining about things needing to be better. Secondly, it means that I'm rarely happy with what I make..."

No time like the present

Perhaps now would be a good time, with Valletta on its way to becoming European Capital for Culture in 2018, to address these issues head on. The Chairman of the Valletta 2018 Foundation, Jason Micallef, certainly sounds determined enough.

"The Foundation is very sensitive to any attitude which does not promote excellence on the basis of challenging ourselves and our limitations on a constant basis. Cultural expression in Malta, like elsewhere, is very diverse, both in style and quality, and we aim to improve what we have inherited and what is currently produced."

But Charlie Cauchi, says that it's important to "qualify what we mean by quality" - once again believing that fostering a healthy critical culture is key.

"This word seems to be used an awful lot, but there is an avoidance to interrogate the criteria by which we mean to assess this 'quality'. Essentially, we need to discuss this matter openly."