COVID rules and mixed messages

Ultimately, government’s disregard of infringements by its own agencies, only nullifies its own message of safety and discipline

The first-ever Malta Film Awards celebration, held over the weekend, has caused a stir among the artistic community: and not all of it is linked to the lavish expenditure on the event.

From the outset, the ceremony was overshadowed by a boycott from prominent of Malta’s film-making community; and their objections have been echoed across the full spectrum of the arts scene.

Given that Malta is still in the embryonic phase of setting up its own, indigenous film-making industry – as opposed to an industry based on servicing foreign productions – wouldn’t it have made more sense to invest in the local industry first: for instance, by creating more facilities, and improving existing ones?

As things stand, the Malta Film Commissions appears to have ‘put the cart before the horse’. Instead of contributing to the creation of a local film industry which can produce a number of quality films a year… it has chosen to invest in an Awards Ceremony first, in a context where Malta actually produces only a very limited number films, spread out over 10 years or more.

So much so, that the winner of the 2022 ‘Best Film’ award went to a film (‘The Boat’, directed by Winston Azzopardi) that – while undeniably deserving – was actually released four years ago, in 2018.

Moreover, the organisers seem to have gone overboard in their efforts (and expenditure) to ‘outdo’ Hollywood. Oliver Mallia, who founded local production compay Pellikola, compared it to the 2019 Icelandic Film Awards.

Placing images of the two events next to each other, he pointed out that Iceland – which produces around 10 feature films per annum - adopted a simple stage setting to celebrate its large film industry.

“Malta’s stage looks like it is competing to take over the Oscars, and the other is an uncomplicated stage with limited lighting, no statues or orchestra and no foreign host,” he noted. “As a country we don’t need to reinvent the wheel.”

Surely, these are relevant questions: especially considering that the local film industry is – not unlike other facets of the arts scene – consistently hampered by the lack of resources, and professional structures.

But there were other objections that went far beyond the scope and purpose of the event itself. Scenes showing audience members sitting side by side, without masks, justifiably caused consternation and disappointment, too.

Among the sober evaluations was that of Howard Keith Debono, President of the Malta Entertainment Industry and Arts Association (MEIA). He started by commenting on the lack of masks and clusters among the audience.

“That’s an organised indoors event, and just like how the rest of stakeholders had to abide by these rules, and still have to abide by these rules - the same rules imposed in the legal notice - it certainly didn’t apply yesterday. This isn’t right and once again it exposes the unfortunate non-level playing field,” he said.

Indeed, many were left wondering what COVID-19 protocols (if any at all) were adhered to during the event: given the stringent rules that apply to schools, theatres, concert halls, weddings and other mass events.

On the one hand, the health authorities have incessantly harped on the importance of social distancing and masks, imposing harsh but necessary protocols. And yet, an event organised by the Malta Film Commission, a government agency, appears to have ignored the rules altogether; and to add insult to injury, the entire ceremony was patronised by several government ministers: some of whom even handed out awards themselves.

This suggests that the impunity enjoyed by the Malta Film Awards was achieved with the complicity – and complacency - of the Maltese government. And this probably rankles a good deal more, than the fact that the ceremony itself was also exaggerated (and arguably unwarranted, on such scale).

In brief, the mixed messages sent out by the government are not only unfair; but they foster anger that risks undermining the belief in science itself, as a tool to battle the pandemic.

A similar instance occurred last November: when the Sigma World i-Gaming Conference appears to have likewise been exempted from COVID restrictions.

Then as now, the complaints were the same: Chris Gruppetta, director of publishing at Merlin Publishers, lashed out at the same ‘double standards’. Attendees at the Malta Book Festival had to wear masks at all times while maintaining social distancing. On the other hand, photos emerged of Sigma attendees without masks, and crowding together at the venue without respect for social distancing rules.

Nor is it just the National Book Association to have cause for complaint. If the science today is telling us that holding mass events like the Malta Film Awards – without any visible restrictions - is acceptable, then it should be equally acceptable to all artistic and sporting sectors: and not just the ones which are ‘sponsored’ (if not ‘hijacked’) by government.

Ultimately, government’s disregard of infringements by its own agencies, only nullifies its own message of safety and discipline. And the impact of this goes beyond COVID; it implies an entire forma-mentis, that ‘anything goes’ if you have the right connections, and can pull the right strings.

This is wrong. People expect the authorities to lead by example.