Future Capital for Culture dissected

A 50-minute documentary on Valletta’s role as European Capital for Culture in 2018 has provided one of the most wide-ranging assessments of Valletta’s – and by extension, Malta’s – upcoming candidature as a hub of culture in 2018.

Is Malta ready for 2018, James Spiteri asks?
Is Malta ready for 2018, James Spiteri asks?

Created by James Spiteri in partial fulfilment of the Master of Arts degree in Creative Industries at the London Metropolitan University, 'Is Malta ready for 2018?' - which can be watched on YouTube - features interviews with various key players in the Valletta 2018 arena, as well as artists and academics giving their take on the proposed developments set to take place over the next five years.

Spiteri grants the opening gambit of the documentary to former Valletta 2018 Foundation chairman, the architect David Felice, who when asked whether he believes Malta to be ready to take on the title of European Capital for Culture says "hopefully not".

"I think that any country that is ready to become a Capital for Culture shouldn't be part of the process," Felice says. Though it's peppered with similarly sweeping statements - like V.18 Artistic Programme director Marc Cabourdin's observation that "there's good art, and there's bad art... the rest is just crap" - Spiteri elegantly marshals his interview footage into a clear and distinct set of themes that succeed in presenting a varied picture of how different people perceive the V.18 phenomenon.

The idea of Malta as Capital for Culture automatically dredges up some interesting related subjects which may otherwise have lain dormant, and the documentary dedicates a generous amount of time to the fiercely contested subject of national identity.

This turns out to be the most interesting chunk of Spiteri's audiovisual study, with illustrator and theatre practitioner Jimmy Grima claiming that most of what we purport to be "Maltese cultural identity" is "a fabrication". Ever since Malta joined the European Union, Grima argues, it has felt the need to create an identity based on "popular" elements of Maltese culture and folklore, even if these elements - such as the ftira and traditional folk dance - may not in fact have the necessary historical clout to be properly "traditional".

Linguist Leanne Ellul meanwhile argues that the "less informed" majority of the Maltese population may not be sensitive enough to Malta's history, and therefore relies on the media to fill this void - a problematic situation since, Ellul argues, the media always comes with its own bias. This is a concern echoed by University of Malta theatre studies lecturer John Schranz, who says that "if you go to the village cores, you can sense what the Maltese culture is..."

It's a "relational" culture, according to Schranz, where the social make-up of the community itself and the relationships automatically depict a picture of Maltese culture. Beyond that however, Schranz argues, "the media" pushes a "dream" that reduces culture to being simply a commodity.

Perhaps Spiteri's documentary comes across as effective because it collates concerns that are normally discussed in isolation under one 'roof', so to speak. In fact, David Felice's reflection on national identity is that the Maltese simply haven't had the opportunity to reflect on it all that much, given how rapidly Malta's national status evolved from World War II onwards (from colony to independence and more recently, becoming an EU member state...)

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat takes the opportunity to flex a 'progressive' side of his political inventory while being interviewed by Spiteri, suggesting that not all Maltese traditions are sacrosanct, and that in fact, he would be in favour of "doing away" with any traditions which may hinder the country's progress (while stopping short of giving and concrete examples). More concretely, Muscat observed that perhaps, culture was seen as operating in isolation to other aspects of Maltese life - like the economy - and that priority should be given towards creating a more concrete link between cultural life and the rest of Maltese life.

Contacted for comment, a spokesman for the Valletta 2018 Foundation said that "The Foundation agrees with the statement of the Prime Minister when he says that culture cannot be seen in a vacuum from other elements like productivity and the economy.

"In fact, the Foundation believes that culture can increase its contribution towards the productivity and the economy of the country.  This is underlined by the Foundation's endorsement of the government's efforts towards the consolidation of the Creative Economy," he added.

Asked to isolate the most pertinent conclusion of his study, James Spiteri noted that, contrary to the popular perception of a "brain drain" of Maltese creatives and artists, "with advancements of technology, there is an interesting thing happening: quality artists are opting to include elements of the Maltese culture in their work, so as to give it a certain flavour".

In doing so, according to Spiteri, "people are questioning their identity and traditions and looking at them from different angles. Coupled with the number of young Maltese furthering their studies abroad, a certain level of objectivity is being fostered". 

Dear Mr. Vella, If you read the first few words of this article, you will notice that this project was done for a course in London. My tutors do not speak Maltese. Had this project been exclusively for the Maltese, I would have loved doing it in our language. Thanks James
Fancy having a 50 minute discussion on Maltese culture and then film it in a language which is though official, alien to most people of this Country.The primary language of these Islands is Maltese,a language that is spoken by all Maltese as opposed to English ,which in its simple form is understood by most after a fashion, but spoken by few.. Get real.