And the band played on…

Attitudes, like facial expressions, are to be swapped and changed according to the demands of circumstance.

Last Wednesday I made my way down to the British Legion in Valletta for a screening of Federico Fellini’s ‘E La Nave Va’, organised by Kinemastik. 

It’s one of those films I seem to vaguely remember watching before, even though I don’t think I’d ever actually sat through an entire screening. Nonetheless, individual moments seemed to stir particular memories: perhaps because they’d been lifted out of context and used elsewhere so many times – on rolling TV mash-ups like Blob (on RAI), for instance. 

The scene where two ageing orchestra conductors perform Schubert on champagne glasses in the ship’s kitchen, for instance, was definitely one I’d seen before somewhere. Or the incurably romantic opera buff, languishing in his armchair and endlessly replaying footage of the love of his life on a hand-operated projector… while the sea slowly seeps into his cabin, and the entire ship lists inexorably towards its grand watery finale... I can’t place it with any certainty, but it seems to capture a sensation I’ve encountered somewhere else. And not too long ago, either. 

Perhaps the camera movement had something to do with it, emulating as it did the pitch and roll of a ship… but stepping out of the cinema actually felt like stepping off a floating vessel onto dry land. And the teetering sensation persisted (not helped much by a few drinks at the bar afterwards) almost until the following morning.

OK, I don’t claim to be an expert on cinema or anything, but I have watched a couple of other Fellini films in my time: enough to discern a certain thread of interlocked motifs running throughout his work. He was a man clearly fascinated by epochal, end-of-era moments – uniquely conscious of the individual phrases and movements that make up the symphony of history, and also amused by the surreal resistance most people put up to the entire concept of change… their dogged refusal to acknowledge that their part in the drama is now over.

The characters in that movie – an assortment of jaded aristocrats, absurdly self-possessed opera divas and maestros, wealthy impresarios and grand patrons of the arts – are all hopelessly drift on board a vessel that is no longer in their control. “We are standing on the crater of a volcano,” the young Archduke at one point says… only for the volcano to erupt all around them with the inevitable onset of World War I. 

Yet on the ship sails, serving caviar and lobster under chandeliers to the fabulously important in the dining area, while hungry Serb refugees eye them darkly through curtained windows from the deck outside. All are painfully conscious of the impending catastrophe; all are hell-bent on pretending it isn’t really happening.

Whether Kinemastik chose this particular movie deliberately to reflect something of the epochal moment we ourselves seem to be living in right now, I do not know. But it could hardly have been a more apposite choice, what with dead bodies washing up all around us, and the band playing on in the background. 

The following morning, still teetering slightly from my maritime experience the night before, I glanced at the newspapers… and for a surreal moment I got the impression I was still stuck in that Fellini movie. “Dignitaries attend funeral of unknown migrants who died trying to reach Europe,” one headline ran. Beneath it, a picture of 24 coffins arrayed on a red carpet, as a gathering of dark-suited, spectral VIPs looked on with suitably sombre faces. 

Honestly, not even Federico Fellini would have been capable of stage-managing a vision quite so bizarre and other-worldly. And that was before even reading the story. “The coffins were carried into the space by AFM soldiers to the sounds of a melancholy harp tune and the wailing of the mourners,” we are told. “The 24 coffins were placed onto their respective trestles in front of the seated dignitaries, many of whom were visibly moved…”

Who are these visibly moved dignitaries, you might be asking? Opera divas and jaded impresarios? Well… almost. There was (inevitably) Prime Minister Joseph Muscat and Opposition leader Simon Busuttil. There was the President of the Republic, Marie Louise Coleiro Preca. Home affairs minister Angelino Alfano was there representing the Ialian government; Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos flew the flag (at half-mast) for the European Union. There was the speaker of the House Angelo Farrugia, along with various ministers and magisters; there were the Bishops of Malta and Gozo, the Imam, and someone resembling Gandalf the Grey in a beanie (not sure, but I think it was the Greek Orthodox Papas). 

Oh yes, the great and the good were all there, putting on their best beaten-dog expressions for the cameras which rolled and clicked incessantly in the background. And of course, there were also the corpses of 24 African asylum seekers, who drowned in the attempt to reach a Europe that turned out in such full force for their funeral… but would not even have so much as sneezed at them had they actually survived the crossing.

In fact… what would have happened, I wonder, had those 24 migrants made it to their destination safe and sound? What would have happened had they been intercepted – like so many thousands of others over the past decade – by the AFM, and escorted under arms to Haywharf?

Unless there’s been a drastic rewrite of the script while I wasn’t looking, the procedure would presumably have been the same as all the other times. No ‘melancholy harp tunes’ would have accompanied their arrest for entering a country without valid documentation. No red carpets would have been rolled out as they were escorted, handcuffed, into a large army bus, thence to be driven to one of Malta’s three detention camps for a mandatory 18-month prison term without trial. 

There might, however, have been a few cameras rolling in the background… only the footage would not have been adorned with bouquets of flowers and placards instructing the audience to ‘weep and wail’ on demand. It would have been included as a bulletin on the 8 o’clock news, in which those same African migrants might have been likened to an invasion of jelly-fish… all accompanied by aggressive demands for the EU to ‘take action’, so that this unbearable ‘scourge’ and ‘plague’ of irregular migration is brought to an emphatic end once and for all, by any means necessary.

But that’s the procedure for living human beings. Dead human beings, on the other hand, do not threaten to take any jobs or undermine the local culture in the long term. So we can afford to be magnanimous towards them. 

And yet, this just scratches the surface of the multi-faceted, devastating irony staring back at us through those cameras at that funeral. Look at the faces of those dignitaries, and compare them to all the other times you’ve seen those faces and heard the accompanying voices. Joseph Muscat, for instance: the ‘piece de resistance’ of the great and the good. Just two years ago, that visage we now see – meticulously contorted into a suitable lock-jawed frown – was almost purple as its owner stamped and thundered from a podium, temple-veins popping, while threatening to illegally deport some 200 Eritrean immigrants unless the EU ‘did something’ about the situation.  

As for Simon Busuttil, he was last seen descending like a whirlwind onto the Ta’ Qali counting hall, wearing an expression of delirious jubilation that might have been designed for him by Bill Henson of the Muppet Show. People looking at the photos on Facebook might have wondered what the heck he was on, and where they might get some for themselves. Well, luckily someone must have nudged him as he entered the funeral hall, and he remembered to whip off the muppet mask and replace it with one of wide-eyed, sombre piety. 

But that’s all it was: a quick behind-the-scenes costume change. This is after all the same Simon Busuttil who (like Joseph Muscat) supported the former Italian government’s automatic push-back policy until two years ago, and only changed opinion after that glaring human rights violation was denounced as such by the European Court of Human Rights. 

In that one, sudden metamorphosis you can almost see the puppet-strings as they jerk the limbs of any politician into motion. Attitudes, like facial expressions, are to be swapped and changed according to the demands of circumstance. If delirious happiness is needed for any strategic purpose, a backstage helper will fumble through the wardrobe and produce the appropriate mask. Ditto for policies: if a court ruling decrees that your old one was against the human rights convention, you simply whip out a new one that isn’t, and assume that no one will ever notice.

Unlike any Fellini movie, there is no discernible thread of commonality in this constant charade. And much the same could be said for all other representatives of the swelling political elite at that funeral (though not, I concede, the religious representatives: the bishops, imams and Gandalfs have all at least been consistent on this issue.) 

Commissioner Avramopoulos? The Commission he represents pursues an official policy to make the crossing as difficult as possible for asylum seekers. For years, the individual member states making up the EU have played a tireless game of ‘pass the parcel’: tweaking conventions like Dublin II here and there, to ensure that their own countries get saddled with as little of the resulting hassle as possible. They have refused to participate in life-saving operations, because it would act as a ‘pull factor’ for more migrants. They have pumped money into border-control operations, then failed to provide the military assets when requested.

Time and again, Europe’s leaders have collectively washed their hands of their own responsibility for large-scale human fatalities occurring right on their doorsteps, as a result of their own policies. Yet look at them now: ‘visibly moved’ by the sheer success of their immigration policies in the case of 24 out of 700 asylum seekers who drowned.  

Speaking of whom: it is these, the 24 dead people in those (almost) identical coffins, that complete the picture of Fellini-like surrealism. Looking from the living to the dead and back again, there is no question to my mind of which strikes the more ‘human’ chord. It’s the dead, clearly. 

And this is in itself bizarre, given that the coffins are marked not with names, but with numbers. It is difficult to imagine a more thorough dehumanisation process, than to be reduced by life to a desperate fugitive, then reduced further in death to a faceless, nameless statistic. But even though their presence is conveyed only by a visual correlation – 23 brown caskets for the adults, one white one for the child – the image nonetheless captures aspirations and circumstances that are nothing if not human in their every aspect. The desire for a better life somewhere else. The desperation that would literally drive people literally into the jaws of death. It is a tragic motif as old as humanity itself.

But the living? Costumes and masks, nothing more. A stage-managed display for the cameras, before the next change of circumstance necessitates another change of costume behind the scenes. Then it will be all delirious happiness and vein-popping brinkmanship again, depending on what the director’s placard demands.

And all along, the melancholy harps play on in the background…

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