Film Review | Dear Dom

Liberator of pariah? Pierre Ellul's dissection of Dom Mintoff doesn't answer any questions, but it remains a milestone in Maltese filmmaking.

Pierre Ellul’s documentary examines the far-reaching impact of Dom Mintoff (pictured) on the Maltese psyche.
Pierre Ellul’s documentary examines the far-reaching impact of Dom Mintoff (pictured) on the Maltese psyche.

"It was very well made," was a comment made by many following a press screening of Pierre Ellul's eagerly-awaited documentary Dear Dom.

But though some may have meant it as a polite, backhanded compliment - glossing over any inherent flaws and political complications in a film about Malta's most controversial political figure to date - it is, in actual fact, probably the most important starting point for such an initiative, and what makes the film a true milestone in Maltese cinema history.

Because far from being superficial matter of style over substance, the fact that Dear Dom looks, sounds and feels easy to watch - its fraught political landscape aside - is a necessary foundation to begin discussing the life and times of Dom Mintoff.

The project - which was made with the help of the Malta Film Fund - first kicked off in earnest during 2008, soon after Mintoff was awarded the by now almost comically paradoxical 'Gaddafi Peace Prize'.

The award once again sparked the kind of vociferous debate that has become synonymous with Mintoff ever since he ruled over the Maltese islands on and off from the 50s through to the 80s - though instead of taking to the streets, this time the debate was had behind the safety of a computer screen.

And despite the fact that Malta's political landscape has changed since Mintoff's long reign, one thing is very clear: it's never too late to make a documentary about Dom Mintoff.

The film opens to voiceover narration which addresses the figure of Mintoff directly - which explains the film's title - sometimes even asking questions to the mercurial former Labour leader in a tone of childlike innocence.

While this striking little framing device makes it clear to viewers that what they're witnessing is a necessarily subjective take on a divisive political figure, Ellul's narrator risks undermining this towards the end, when any ambiguity is shoved aside and Mintoff is described as having left permanent 'scars' on the Maltese populace.

Up to that point however, what we have is an accessible, informative and - somewhat remarkable considering the subject matter - refreshingly detached documentary.

Shifting in tone between Mintoff as a liberator from colonial rule and Mintoff as a political pariah, Ellul's documentary is highly ambitious, and depicts a long stretch of modern Maltese history.

Apart from key political figures and members of the intelligentsia from both the Labour and Nationalist camps, the film presents interviews with 'normal' people who were caught in the storm of post-WWII Malta, after Mintoff ascended to power. As each side tells opposing stories, it's made clear to us that when it comes to Mintoff, the twain will never meet: it's practically impossible to pin Mintoff down as either entirely 'good' or entirely 'bad'.

Even Peter Cassar Torreggiani - son of former vice-chairman of the National Bank, one of the 'casualties' of Mintoff's rule - describes Mintoff as being, above everything else, "human" - with all the complications that the loaded adjective implies.

Consisting mostly of archive footage and face-to-face interviews, Dear Dom is enlivened by animated sequences by Chris Pace.

Some of them are truly memorable - like a quirky trip through Maltese history as depicted in an animated canvas, and the slightly surreal sequence of soldiers marching on a white-and-red background to form a Maltese flag. But a sequence depicting the infamous attack on The Times building in October 1979 - coupled with a stylised representation of the Raymond Caruana murder - is less beneficial to Ellul's aims.

Arriving without any narration to accompany it, while visually compelling, doesn't really add anything to the debate - playing to the eyeballs and the emotions, but not much else... a puzzling approach given how a documentary would be the perfect place to contribute some measured arguments.

Perhaps the most intriguing segment of the film is a post-facto 'exchange' between Lino Spiteri - economist and former member of Mintoff's cabinet - and Joe Psaila Savona, former PN tourism minister in the Labour stronghold of Zejtun.

Juxtaposed together, Ellul's interviews with the former politicians once again confirm that Mintoff can't be easily pinned down. While Psaila Savona gives an emotional account of the hardships suffered by many during the Mintoff era, Spiteri - present throughout most of the documentary - paints a lucid picture of a stubborn, but deeply flawed man.

And sure enough, confronted with the challenge of describing Mintoff in one word, Spiteri concedes defeat.

"I can describe him in two words, though," he says towards the end of Ellul's documentary: "hard headed".

Dear Dom will be showing at Eden Cinemas from March 23.