Simshar: finally, on firm ground

On his visit to the set of Simshar last Friday, Teodor Reljic discovered a dedicated team that hasn’t given up on the dream to give Malta its very first bona fide feature film – despite its long gestation period.

Simshar director Rebecca Cremona (far right) on set at the Pace Grasso football stadium, Paola last Friday.
Simshar director Rebecca Cremona (far right) on set at the Pace Grasso football stadium, Paola last Friday.

I'm taken to a tent, and I'm asked to wait. It's only April, but the sun is already scorching everything in its path, so I relish the shade. A young boy runs by. Presumably, he'll be forming part of the convoy of extras playing on-screen migrants during this - one of the final days of shooting for Simshar, Rebecca Cremona's long-gestating film on the titular boating tragedy that made local news headlines in 2008.

The boy pauses, appraising me. I say my tentative 'hello' (I've never been good with kids, and being on a film set does nothing to soften my awkwardness).

He frowns at me, and runs away.

Clearly, the set - the Pace Grasso football stadium in Paola, doubling up as a detention centre - has already established some communal codes, and it recognises visitors, or outsiders.

You can hardly blame the kid, though: the set is impeccably "camouflaged", as Simshar's producer Leslie Ann Lucey, who serves as my guide, describes it. The stadium is festooned with khaki-green tents, appropriately recreating the detention centre setting.

It's not just extras and actors who are housed there, but the crew too.

It doesn't take too long for me to conclude that this immediate clash between fact and fiction - an everyday, humdrum reality of working on a film set - is bound to be felt in more uncanny ways on a project like Simshar, which tackles a relatively recent episode in Maltese history, and is powered by a topic - irregular migration - which remains a hot potato to this day.

This is certainly not lost on the team behind the film. "Here's a bit of information that you might find interesting," Leslie slips in at the end of our little interview in the designated 'press tent'. "We began filming here around a week ago, and soon after we got wind of the fact that people from the Paola community were calling the local council to complain about what they were seeing here - they were convinced that these people were actual migrants."

It turns out though, that there's actually some truth in this.

"Most of the migrants are played by professional actors, and most of them are Maltese. But I believe that a handful of them - and this includes the people who helped put up these tents - did, at some point, come from detention centres.

"So there's irony there. It really is quite fascinating."

Our interview - just like the other little interviews I go on to conduct that day - is interrupted by loud noises of protest. The scene of the day gets underway, and it's not pretty.

A now vintage, pre-Arriva bus - remember, this is 2008 - squeezes through the stadium doors, carrying in a consignment of migrants. They are greeted with eager, violent boos and jeers, accompanied by placards like the classic 'Blacks Out'.

The eye of the storm - and the real focus of the scene - is far more intimate. A migrant girl is being tended to by a doctor. At one point, one of the inmates - made indignant by the ravenous display of hatred behind the detention centre fence - bolts out of his tent to confront the crowd, alone.

READ MORE: Interview with Simshar director Rebecca Cremona

Though immigration may not be as high on the political agenda as it was back in 2008, witnessing the scene get underway was a reminder of just how easily the pendulum could swing back again. Happening 'live' in front of you, unvarnished by any post-production embellishment, none of what unfolds feels far-fetched, and perhaps the reaction of the Paola locals is a testament to that.

But if that suggests that the shoot is draped under a pall of heavy political significance, nothing could be further from the truth.

The production feels like an energetic, eager runt: populated by a smattering of young, attractive people, the order of the day seems to be a charming camaraderie.

They're also noticeably tanned. Filming outdoors will do that to you, even if it isn't the peak of summer.

Simshar's production design duo - the Maltese Nina Gerada and the British-Eritrean Jonathan Hagos - are certainly the people to speak to about the 'physical' dimension of putting Simshar together.

Jonathan complains about the winds that threatened to destroy the very set we sit on just a while back, but you never get the sense that either of them are in any way exhausted or defeated by the ongoing, and soon to be wrapped, shoot.

Instead, Nina enthuses about having the opportunity to learn the tricks of the trade from fishermen while working on the Simshar boat, and recalling a festa scene in Marsaxlokk square, Jonathan gives a shout out to the film's art director Chris Bonello, who pushed them to achieve the necessary level of authenticity.

"Thankfully he's a bit of a festa freak - no, scratch freak, that's offensive: let's just call him an 'enthusiast'..."

Poignancy is never far away from a film as home-grown, and wended to deep social issues like Simshar however. "During one of our scenes on the boat, a boat of migrants happened to be arriving not too far off from us," Jonathan recounts. "The very nature of this project pushes you to be truthful at every step of the way: and it was always important for us to remain neutral, and not to dictate public opinion."

But social injustice wasn't the only challenge to portray accurately and delicately: the beautiful side of Malta needed to be handled with care too, in its transition to film.

"The thing is that Malta is really picturesque, whichever way you spin it," Nina says. "And Rebecca would always say that we have to be careful about this, that we shouldn't romanticise it too much. But even if you drive through, say, Birgu... the streets are beautiful in and of themselves, you don't even need to romanticise it."

After shooting wraps next week, Simshar will enter a six-week post-production phase. And after that - January 2014, Leslie predicts - it'll be sent off on a tour of international film festivals - such as America's prestigious Sundance - with aim being for it to go on general release in the spring of 2014.

It's been a long ride, and it's been a team effort.

If Leslie is to be believed, however, the 'team' extends far beyond the confines of Simshar's set.

"People really believe in this. And they believe in Rebecca. The entire Maltese community made this possible."

Simshar is supported by the Malta Film Fund