Requiem for an unmade movie

Personally, I think the Borg Pisani story is not only a very good choice of movie subject but an important one to evaluate through the medium of a Maltese-made film

Carmelo Borg Pisani
Carmelo Borg Pisani

I haven’t got round to watching ‘Dunkirk’ yet. But already I feel I know a lot about the movie just from all the online criticism it’s been receiving. 

I know, for instance, that it doesn’t have enough women in leading roles. Or black people. Or Indians (as in, people from India, not Native Americans... though of course, those are under-represented too). Apparently there are not enough Australians and New Zealanders, either. And no transsexuals at all, or any other subcategory of the LGTBQi community.

It seems, in brief, that there is hardly a single minority or majority group in the entire world that doesn’t somehow feel left out of Christopher Nolan’s latest film. I’m half waiting for Bridget Bardot to complain about the lack of endangered species of wildlife, or anything resembling a concern for animal rights. It’s almost as though there is a checklist of themes and gender/ethnicity balances that must be somehow incorporated into each and every single contemporary film... regardless what that film is actually about.

In this case, it’s about an operation to evacuate Allied Forces from Nazi-occupied France in WW2. I’ll leave it historians to argue over how many women, black people, Indians and all the rest were actually involved, and in what capacity. What intrigues me about all this criticism is that, from the very outset, none of it is actually concerned with the film itself. Hardly any of the negative reviews I’ve read took the trouble to analyse the details that Nolan actually included in his historical re-enactment. They focused instead on all the things an imaginary film by the same name might have featured, had it been directed by someone else.

In full fascist glory: Borg Pisani dons his unfirom with colleagues (Borgt Pisani can be seen on the right of the group below looking to the left)
In full fascist glory: Borg Pisani dons his unfirom with colleagues (Borgt Pisani can be seen on the right of the group below looking to the left)

Such arguments are not, therefore, about the ‘film Christopher Nolan made’; they’re about the film he SHOULD HAVE made... according to an entirely arbitrary (and quite frankly irrelevant) set of criteria, drawn up by people who have never made any films at all. 

Naturally, this sort of approach is not limited to ‘Dunkirk’; nor even to the movies. It seems we have inadvertently stumbled into an era where what matters is not the art or literature you actually produce; it’s how much your art panders to (often blatantly unrealistic) audience expectations... how many of the boxes you manage to tick off on that imaginary checklist.

And in some cases, it applies even to the art or literature you intend to produce, but haven’t yet got round to producing. Not only is it possible – as so many have done with Dunkirk – to criticise a movie without having seen it... but it’s become possible to pre-emptively criticise a movie before production on it has even begun.

This is what’s happening right now, in the case of the winner of a newly-launched local movie fund. No sooner was it announced that a local film company was awarded 100,000 to make a biopic of Carmelo Borg Pisani – the Maltese fascist sympathiser who was sent here as a spy in WW2, and eventually hanged for high treason – than an army of online critics immediately tore the as-yet unmade movie to pieces. 

The main current of this criticism focused on the funding aspect. Mark Camilleri, who seems to be leading the cavalry charge, put it like this: “Until now I have refrained from commenting on the activities and work of my counterparts in other State bodies but this is beyond outrageous. Arts Council Malta and PBS are funding a project to celebrate a Maltese fascist who collaborated with the Italians during the Second World War [...] This is NOT a documentary on Carmelo Borg Pisani, it is a dramatic film based on a story which celebrates him as a hero and will be subsidised by the government to the tune of €100,000...”

Right: let’s start with a less important detail: the issue of ‘taxpayers’ money’. Camilleri is not entirely correct about the source of the funding. It turns out that the Arts Council was only involved at the adjudication stage, and that the money was actually put up by PBS. Not that this detail really matters, but it does change things slightly. PBS is subsidised by the government, but it also has its own independent sources of revenue. It receives funding from the European Broadcasting Union, and it makes money from advertising. Maltese taxpayers cannot claim a monopoly on PBS’ current financial status... so I fail to see how they can presume to dictate how that station spends its own money.

But that is largely irrelevant for two reasons: one, the category ‘Maltese taxpayer’ includes people apart from Mark Camilleri and others who have voiced the same concerns. It includes me, for instance... and I certainly have no objection to spending €100,000 on the production of a film that explores a fundamentally important part of our own recent history. It also includes the team of Maltese filmmakers themselves, as well as the board that approved the project... not to mention all the people who (like myself) might actually be interested in watching the finished film.

Carmelo Borg Pisani has remained a revered figure in Italian fascist lore, with several streets named after him in different towns
Carmelo Borg Pisani has remained a revered figure in Italian fascist lore, with several streets named after him in different towns

In fact, it never ceases to amaze how single individuals can assume the authority to speak on behalf of all Maltese taxpayers... as though the act of filling in your Income Tax return also somehow binds you to a contract of permanent agreement with those individuals. Sorry, folks, but it doesn’t work that way. Feel free to air as many objections as you like... but don’t frame those objections as though they come from every single tax paying citizen of Malta.

The second reason is that: well, even if it were taxpayers’ money... so what? I call that money well spent. Not, of course, because it will automatically result in a good quality production... I obviously haven’t seen this film either; for all I know it could turn out to be a pile of junk... but because it is important that the State finances a local film industry that cannot possibly exist without sponsorship.

This adds an important dimension to Camilleri’s line of criticism. He is technically objecting to the €100,000 grant, not to the independent film-makers’ right to make a film. Yet take away that grant, and de facto, the film becomes impossible to make. To block the financing, in this instance, is to block the film itself. I thought I’d just point that out, because Mark Camilleri is also the founder of Malta’s anti-censorship movement.

But in any case: the major problem here is broadly in line with the aforementioned criticism levelled at Dunkirk. The objections have nothing to do with the film itself – for the obvious reason that none of us has even read the script, still less seen the finished product. They are all rooted in an ‘a priori’ assumption of what this movie will be about, and how it will portray its subject matter. And this is hugely problematic for a wide variety of reasons.

Personally, I think that the Carmelo Borg Pisani story is not only a very good choice of movie subject in its own right – in fact it’s already been dramatised in ‘The Malta Story’ (1953), and on stage by Francis Ebejer’s ‘Requiem for a Malta Fascist’ – but an important one to evaluate through the medium of a Maltese-made film. There is more at stake here than the persona of Borg Pisani himself (whatever your opinion about him may happen to be); there is also the evaluation of Malta’s experience of World War II, which over the years has been watered down to soften certain nuances that now make us uncomfortable.

It irks us, for instance, to be reminded that a great many people in this country privately or publicly sympathised with Mussolini in and around the 1930s. (Some, Borg Pisani included, actually idolised him.) There is little point denying this on a historical level – before the actual outbreak of WW2, there were Maltese newspapers which openly backed Il Duce in their leading articles. It is likewise a historical fact that Maltese nationals – including the Chief Justice, the PN leader, etc – were interned on the basis of their presumed Italian sympathies, and later deported to Uganda.

Historians like Camilleri have no difficulty acknowledging the historical truth of these and other examples. They do not ‘deny’ the existence of Maltese fascists; they have no problem with ‘documentaries’, or any number of historical treatises, based on these established facts. It is only when a fictional dramatisation of these same facts is proposed, that the floodgates of objections are suddenly flung wide open.

The real problem with the Borg Pisani film project is that it proposes, to some degree or other, telling the story from Borg Pisani’s own point of view. To present him as the central protagonist, and therefore – inevitably – to try and come to grips with how a Maltese fascist might have actually felt at the time. What might have motivated his ill-fated choice; what sort of internal conflicts and dilemmas he may have endured... that sort of thing.

The online reaction to this proposal could be summed up as: ‘Preposterous! Who cares what these people thought at the time? We all already know what Maltese fascists were like. They were... um... fascists! And that’s all there is to be said for it...”

I hate to say it, but that is a singularly disappointing approach to be taken by anyone with even a remote interest in history. It might surprise some of the more vociferous objectors to discover that some members of their own family might have secretly (or openly) been fascist sympathisers 70 or 80 years ago. The word didn’t have the same connotations as it does today: nor were fascists like Borg Pisani necessarily aware of the full scale of what was really going on across the full theatre of war. To dismiss such people on the grounds that ‘they were fascists’ is to judge those people by today’s standards, not the standards of 1940. It is, in a word, an anachronism.

Ultimately, part of what makes a good historical movie is how well it recreates the context and zeitgeist of its setting. For reasons I’ve already outlined, I will not simply assume the filmmakers will do a good job on this occasion... though I sincerely hope they do, and am looking forward to watching the film. Even from now, however, I can clearly discern the opportunity for a job well done. It’s an interesting story, which can only force us to reconsider what we think we already know about Malta’s wartime experience.

For that reason alone, I’d say the film deserves to be made... and yes, to be publicly financed, too. In fact, it’s high time we started investing in a little creativity around here for a change.

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