Are ‘cult’ films a possibility for Malta?

With Simshar finally making its way into local cinemas, Malta has arguably won its first ‘exportable’ feature length film. But would it be realistic to hope for a more raw – or ‘cult’ – sensibility to emerge from Maltese filmmakers?

Cult classic: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
Cult classic: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

The based-on-true events, home-grown feature film Simshar has finally made its way into local cinemas last week, capping off a film production journey which took some seven years – and financial help from several quarters – in its drive to tell the story of the titular boating tragedy on the big screen.

But while Rebecca Cremona’s film may have proven that a local filmmaker can – with some perseverance – pull together a ‘serious’ feature film that tackles relevant and weighty topics, what about less thematically ambitious films, made on even smaller budgets but helping Maltese filmmakers learn their craft, while also responding to local ‘prompts’ – like social scenarios – in a more ‘fun’ way?

What if, for example, a tradition of local ‘B-movies’ began to be established – perhaps opting for the easy-to-appropriate horror genre to start with – bridging the gap between festival friendly mainstream offerings of the Simshar ilk and the unsatisfying – and far too ambitious – fare like last year’s ‘epic fantasy’ Adormidera?

Filmmaker, actor and producer Mark Doneo – who apart from being a fixture of local television, also released the feature length film Silhouette last year – agrees that “a decent B-movie scene is sorely missed, locally”.

“Writers and creatives (myself included) have to date either opted for more ‘flamboyant’, feel-good projects, or thematically overly ambitious features and have overlooked stories from our own backyard that could (and would) work on a simple artistic level. I’m not necessarily saying that one is good or bad. Only that it’s missing,” he said.

Doneo contends that, perhaps predictably, it’s financial considerations that would pose the biggest challenge to such productions. Since B-movies would be the least likely to attract any governmental support, owing to the fact that their subject matter would not be considered artistically ‘worthwhile’, securing financing and ensuring that you make some of your money back would be, understandably, a priority.

“Another reason would be lack of ambition. Again, I’m not pointing my finger at anyone here except myself. I targeted ‘my’ audience. I didn’t look beyond these shores and work towards something that would hold its own in an international arena. I did my research and decided that if I was to ever be in a position (financially) to pen and produce anything with an ‘international’ appeal, I would need to make money from my first project. Which I did.  Now, my reasoning has changed. The next two features I’m working on have a completely different approach and target audience,” Doneo added.

Malta certainly isn’t lacking for raw material ready to be converted into B-movie gold, if filmmaker Martin Bonnici is to be believed.

“If you think of all the abandoned forts, caves and complexes scattered around the Maltese countryside, aesthetics like Cikku Fenech’s infamous land rover (ask anyone who lived in Mosta and they’ll tell you what I’m talking about), even sub-cultures like the over-the-top party scene that is normal for Malta. We just have to work with what we have, so no big labs set up by evil corporations, no westerns unless you want the childish ‘Popeye Village’ look,” Bonnici said.

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Bonnici however added that a cursory glance of the ‘types’ of local filmmakers seems to suggest that a cult sensibility still needs to be cultivated in Malta: those who are enamoured by the “spectacle” that comes with the filmmaking world, while remaining unaware of the logistics that need be taken into consideration; those “technical experts” who cut their teeth servicing big budget technical productions and now want to make films within that range, and “the ones who have invested too much in looking intellectual to consider risking making a fun film”.

“I guess Malta is missing the fourth type, the filmmaker who understands that film is a business, so you need to develop it gradually, learn the ropes, try and have as much fun as you can along the way and get a return on your investment,” Bonnici said.

But Maltese film producer Jean Pierre Magro – currently preparing to launch the British-produced film We Are Monster at this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival – contends that it would be difficult to get anything going in Malta at all if the current lacuna in the educational system, with regards to filmmaking, is not addressed.

“Education is our starting point. And we have been failing for a number of years. If we do not have the necessary lecturers then we need to import. The script is the basis of everything. However every year I hear each administration claim that steps are being done to rectify the situation. I lost faith in that. We need administrators that understand the industry. Unfortunately most of the administrators are amateurs who have no qualifications or experience in this particular field,” Magro said, adding that if it were up to him, the Malta Film Fund would be temporarily scrapped in favour of a system that would “train the trainers” – i.e., creative and technical professionals.

“We will not become a film making nation tomorrow. This is a long term commitment,” Magro said.

On his part, filmmaker Kenneth Scicluna is wary of seeing any type of filmmaking – B-movie or otherwise – as a creative solution in and of itself.

“I do not think that making a film specifically look like it was made with little money, that mimics other cult films (a fallacy in itself since, practically by definition, cult films are one-offs that attain a loyal following based on their unique traits), and that tries to do anything other than be a good film, is a good place to start from. 

“That one has a story and tries to turn it into a film that could be made with a fairly low budget is one thing, that one builds an aesthetic on a visual and aural approach that does not call for expensive effects during or after filming is also another possibility. And yet, those are limits that still allow ample scope for creative filmmaking.

“As admirable as it is for an amputee to dance – and I have seen beautiful work in that respect – donning a straightjacket and attempting to do the same would be a false start, if not a case of mockery, for the former seeks a higher sense of being, and the latter is a forced, self-limiting attempt,” Scicluna added.