Seven seconds in Sliema…

Things may have changed, but ‘domestic violence’, in Malta, still has an evident aura of ‘omertà’ about it. Our own story already implies this: neither the victim, nor the shopkeeper, wanted to press charges

I imagine it must be obvious by now that I’ve been watching a lot of movies recently, and that this occasionally gets reflected in my articles.

That’s the thing with moving pictures, you know: even a short moment, captured on film, can adequately sum up an entire mood or complex frame of mind. And when you surround yourself with such images all the time (and have deadlines looming ever closer) it becomes hard not to start viewing everything in terms of a living, breathing movie… in which you yourself take the place of the roving, all-seeing camera eye.

It can be a useful approach, too, if you’re trying to set a scene, or get a point across quickly with words.  But it does have certain drawbacks. One is that your ‘all-seeing camera’ doesn’t always necessarily reflect the truth – the whole truth, and nothing but the truth – of everything it sees. Another is that… um… it’s not really ‘all-seeing’, is it? What about all the stuff outside the visible frame?

Yet another is that… you’re the cameraman now. You choose what details to focus on, and what lines of dialogue to make audible. And, like any film-maker… you have your own bias. You have your own personal reasons for wanting the reader to ‘see only this’, or ‘hear mostly that’, or ‘not pay too much attention to the other’…

All of which is great: if you are, in fact, a director making a movie on a movie set. But when writing about real events or issues, which have real effects on real people… it can be a little... misleading.

Naturally, I can only think of a movie clip to illustrate this point. Not from any Oscar-nominated feature film:  just a seven-second I-phone grab of an incident that took place in Bisazza Street, Sliema, a few days ago.

The clip shows a young man, background, violently kicking a glass shop door. There is a quick (and impressively accurate) zoom onto him. On the second kick, the door opens and he rushes in and punches an unseen female inside – hard - who screams loudly off-camera on impact. The action is almost one complete movement, all viewed distantly in the background: in the foreground are a few random pedestrians walking up the street, and we hear ’oohing’ and ‘aah-ing’ at both the kicks, and (louder) at the sound of punch/scream.

Then the clip ends. Seven seconds in total: eleven, if you also include the annoying ‘You can skip this ad in: 4,3,2…’ [Note to Youtube advertisers: of course I’m going to skip the bloody ad. And while I’m at it, I’m going to boycott all your products forever, too.]

Like any good, controversial movie, this one stands out more for the immediate aftermath of its circulation (even though, as a film in its own right, it’s actually pretty well-shot). Immediately it went viral; questions were asked about whether the man was going to be arrested, etc. In a word, it became a social media ‘thing’.

Later (yesterday) we learnt that the Rapid Intervention Unit had indeed been dispatched to the scene of the crime – confirming that a report must have been made – but found that “the shop-owner refused to press charges on what was minimal damage, while the victim refused to cooperate with the police to identify the aggressor.”

In the meantime (i.e., before that last detail came out yesterday) the Women’s Rights Foundation and several organisations – the Association for Equality, Dar Merhba Bik Foundation, Fondazzjoni Sebh, Malta Confederation of Women Organisations, Malta Association of Women in Business, Men Against Violence, and the St Jeanne Antide Foundation – issued a joint statement:

“We are very disappointed to hear that no police action has been duly taken against the visible and identifiable aggressor that intentionally went in a rage to attack his partner at her place of work. […] It is an offence that need not rely on the complaint of the injured party. When brought to the attention, authorities have the obligation to exercise due diligence, investigate and take the necessary criminal action. No complaint from the injured party is required in such cases.”

Later that same day, the police issued a terse press statement, revealing the above detail, and also announcing that the aggressor had, in fact, been duly identified, arrested and charged.

OK, let’s stop there for now. A talented film-maker could have a field-day with all that material. It could make a good short movie on its own, but also supply the premise for a more substantial documentary or feature.

Alas, we are not here to make a film about it right now. All the same, I’m going to imagine that we are: just for the purpose of illustrating all that stuff I was blabbing about earlier.

Depending, of course, on the type of film we turn it into: one of the first things we’d need to do is storify the material. Give it purpose, direction. Assign motivations and interests to all the actors. And immediately, we are beset by a crucial choice. Whose perspective are we going to tell this story from? The man? The woman? The shopkeeper? The passers-by? The Police? The women’s rights NGOs? The people commenting on Facebook? Heck, could we have seen the whole thing through the eyes of a stray cat, which just wandered off afterwards?

All those, and many more, could be doable. But – to avoid unnecessarily complicating matters with multiple POVS – let’s apply the Highlander principle: ‘there can only be one’.

Let us further assume that our film is going to take a documentary (or social commentary) format, and we are interested in the political/social dimension of domestic violence in general. The choice could then be further simplified: we could tell the story from the police’s POV, or that of the NGOs.

Whatever we choose, it will turn out a very different story indeed. Let’s start with the NGO’s POV… which is also the opinion of many (not all) of the people commenting online.

Very helpfully, their statement also gives us a clear, unequivocal idea of their general motivation:

“Time and time again we hear of women complaining about how the police have refused to take their report, failed to investigate and/or never issued charges pertaining to their case. Given the lack of action in this case, when there is clear evidence of domestic violence, confirms further their stories.”

That could easily be the director’s actual instructions to real actors playing those parts. “THIS… this is what’s pissing you off. That this sort of thing happens all the time, yet the police never do anything about it. And you’re sick and tired of it, because it only means it will keep happening… over and over again...”

Naturally, it also casts the police (on top of the aggressor) in the role of ‘the bad guys’: if not outright villains, then at least obstacles. And as we all know: the bigger and badder the bad guys, the better the film…

So… yep, definitely. This approach works. To convey it in a movie, however, we would also need to emphasise that the police only arrested that guy because of the social media outrage/pressure – or (if we’re going to be really devious), only after the activists’ press statement: i.e., suggesting that they also tried to make it look like they had acted earlier, but nobody noticed.

This would also work, because – let’s face it – the perception echoed by that statement does indeed exist. Things may have changed, but ‘domestic violence’, in Malta, still has an evident aura of ‘omertà’ about it. Our own story already implies this: neither the victim, nor the shopkeeper, wanted to press charges.

So our movie already conforms to a certain audience expectation. It tells an all-too familiar tale, about Malta’s ‘amoral familism’ preventing justice from being done.

But… is it true of this particular incident? It’s not a question to ask of a fictitious movie, naturally. But this is a newspaper article. The truthfulness of the finished product does become an issue: here, if nowhere else.

For obvious reasons, I can’t rightly say off the top of my head. What I can do to redress the imbalance, however, is try and tell the same story from the Police’s POV.

No need for any change to any major details: the only difference is that our movie would now have to clearly establish that: a) yes, the Rapid Intervention Unit did indeed rapidly intervene (note: I can see them already, all rushing madly out of the Floriana depot int to cars and vans, sirens wailing, like the Keystone Cops…); b) that they really couldn’t identify the aggressor immediately, because of lack of co-operation from victim/witnesses, and; c) that they nonetheless took the trouble to eventually identify him themselves, and promptly arrested him as soon as they could.

It goes without saying, then, that our film would portrait the NGOs as having been, at best, unfair to simply assume that none of this happened at all, before issuing their statement.

OK, like I said: we all have our own biases… and mine is that both of those perspectives are, in fact, entirely as plausible as one another. Just as we all know the police have a history of turning a blind eye to domestic violence… it is also demonstrably true that the police (and all institutions) are often really expected to behave like the Keystone Cops: to promptly, diligently and successfully respond to absolutely every crisis… to save every cat from every tree, and help every granny cross every busy street… and to solve even the most complex of crimes before they even happen (to the extent that they sometimes even get blamed for failing to prevent people from getting murdered)…
…and when reality fails to conform to this (bizarrely unrealistic) expectation, a handful of online activists tend to immediately go into overdrive, complaining about the ‘total collapse of Malta’s rule of law’…

What all this ultimately boils down to is that… Woo-hoo! We can now make two perfectly decent films, instead of only one. So… what are we all waiting for?

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