Malta is not a ‘Hollywood in the Mediterranean’ | Charlie Cauchi

CHARLIE CAUCHI – multidisciplinary artist and filmmaker – argues that Malta’s film industry still has some distance to go, before it can ‘rival the Oscars’ with elaborate awards ceremonies…

Charlie Cauchi. Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday
Charlie Cauchi. Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday

Last week’s Malta Film Awards was criticized for a lot of things: including, inter alia, that the lavish approach may give a misleading impression of the actual state of Malta’s film industry. Your own reaction was to question the main theme: ‘100 years of Maltese film’. Do you feel that we are more concerned with projecting the image of a thriving film-industry… than with actually building up an indigenous film culture of our own?

It is actually a lot more complicated than that; too complicated, in fact, to be summarized by that single Facebook post you just quoted.

Let me try and answer you this way: when I commented about the ‘100 years of Maltese film’… I wasn’t merely questioning whether all the films, produced in Malta over that time-period, can realistically be defined as ‘Maltese films’ or not.  Even because the research on this subject is still ongoing, to this day.

I myself started writing about it in 2007, up until around 2016: and as any academic researcher should be able to say, what I’ve discovered so far is that… there is always more to discover. That’s the beauty of research, to be honest. We always find more things out…

So I’m not really disputing the claim that ‘Malta has a 100-year history of film’. In itself, that may even be true: Malta does have a long, and very interesting, involvement with film-making… and I certainly don’t think we should be shying away from it.

What concerns me a little, however, is the way we seem to be using that as a tagline – or sound-bite – to make a ‘bold claim’ about ourselves. For one thing, I feel this doesn’t really do justice to the real history of Maltese film, to begin with… but for another: I also feel we need to be taking a much broader view of our film industry, in general. We should be looking at the past, yes; but also at the future… and the present.

And there is a lot we have to unpack, so to speak, before we can arrive at the point of making such ‘bold claims’. And this, incidentally, is something that has cropped up time and again, over the years. To give you one example: do you remember the ‘Rinella Movie Park’, back in the 1990s?

Vaguely, yes…

Well, not that many people remember it very clearly, because it didn’t last very long. In 1996, there was an announcement that they were going to create a ‘movie park’; and the park itself was inaugurated in, I think, 1999… but it was a very short-lived, very expensive project.

Looking back, you can see more or less what happened there. There was a lull in the industry, at the time: but instead of using that opportunity to, for instance, invest in our own infrastructure… in our own filmmakers… what happened? We created something bombastic; something that was trying to mimic something else… like the Universal theme park in Hollywood.

It is as though there’s this constant struggle to be the ‘next Hollywood’. In fact, we are often labelled as the ‘Hollywood of the Mediterranean’ – but the question many of us are asking is… how can we also be ourselves? How can we also create a plan, that takes Malta’s own characteristics into account?

But what does ‘being ourselves’ really mean, in the context of film? Since the 1970s, Malta has been home to a fairly successful film-servicing industry, for instance. Is that not also part of what can realistically be described as a local film industry?

It is… and it isn’t. Because while both ‘film servicing’, and ‘film production’ are part of the same, broader industry… they are very different sectors, and they do need to be treated differently.

Don’t get me wrong: it’s great that we service films. It’s amazing, in fact. A lot of people learn by working on foreign productions; and it pumps a lot of money into the local economy. But when it comes to our own filmmaking; that is where it has always been lacking. Many people have been trying to change that. In fact, I cannot even count the number of stakeholder meetings I’ve attended, since around 2006… and great: we all sit around drinking tepid coffee, placated with stale pastries to discuss ‘what needs to be changed’. And yet here we are, all these years later, still fighting for the same thing.

Likewise, it’s amazing that we now have films like Luzzu. I cannot tell you how happy I am, to have people texting me from abroad, saying: “I’ve just seen a Maltese film, and it was amazing…” At the same time, however… there shouldn’t only be one Luzzu. That sort of output should be a constant: not just a one-off. But how do we turn this into a constant? I would say it’s by creating a national film strategy, that enables film-makers to actually ‘make films’; and not where the goal-posts continuously keep shifting.

This brings us to what local film-makers are actually demanding. What is it, precisely, that you would like to see changed? And what do you mean by ‘shifting goalposts’, in this scenario?

I’d like to start off by saying I am speaking independently here – as someone whose previous academic work has centred on this very subject; and as someone who makes films themselves. It’s not easy to pin it down to just one example: there are multiple national incentives and structural changes that could be implemented to support Malta’s own filmmaking output. I am just going to highlight a few.

One thing for sure, is that the audio-visual sector (which includes television) can still be described as being highly fragmented: split across a number of ministerial portfolios and institutions, without any formal connection to a single central organization; which perhaps makes it difficult to create a more comprehensive film strategy.

Then there are other practical matters: for instance, ‘Screen Malta’ [formerly the Malta Film Fund]. It’s great that we are investing in local productions; but for starters, the amount of money given out to each year needs to increase. And more importantly, the dates of the annual call for projects seem to continuously change. There needs to be more consistency, on this point. Especially if you’re a producer, and you’re in the process of planning your budget, raising finances, and creating a timeline, and so on.

As I said, there are a multitude of changes that need to be made. I’d like to align my comments with those already made by other film professionals that have come forward over the past few weeks – through ĊELEBRAZZJONI, the MEIA and MPA – in calling for a working group that can be part of the discussion, to create a cohesive and realistic national film policy.  The emphasis thus far has been on principal photography. But post-production should also be included, as should film education, exhibition, heritage, screen tourism, co-production… the list goes on.

Still on the subject of Screen Malta: there is the issue – also raised by ĊELEBRAZZJONI – of the ‘de minimis’ clause. The way the funding programme works in practice, is that any entity can only receive a maximum of €200,000 in government funding, over a period of three years: whether it is from the Film Fund, or the Arts Council, or any other government source. But if the budget of the film you’re working on is, say, €1 million – which is not even very much, for a film – where does that leave you, as a film-maker?

But that only raises the question of whether a national film industry should even be so reliant on government funding in the first place. Looking at how films are financed in other countries: they’re not all State-funded, are they?

Other national film industries are a lot more supportive. And actually, it would be a good exercise to compare policies of other nations that share similarities with our own: such as domestic audience size, GDP, and so on.

But I am not suggesting, in any way, that filmmakers should be totally reliant on government funding…  of course not. And they normally aren’t. Private financing is important. Just as co-producing with other countries is important. Not just for financial reasons, but also for the creative and cultural benefits that co-producing with other nations can bring.

But by investing in our own films, we would then also be in a position to attract further investment from international production companies, to create work that is mutually beneficial to all parties.

Apart from financial considerations, there are also entirely logistical/practical challenges. Malta boasts the long-established (maritime-themed) Rinella Film Studios… but what other facilities exist for other types of productions? Is Malta even equipped, to produce quality films on an industrial scale?

I would rather focus my attention on Malta’s domestic output. But having said that, many are aware that since we do not retain a soundstage or multiple soundstages, it can often be difficult for productions to shoot simultaneously. And this is something that I believe is being taken into consideration. Also, there is only so much time left for us to rely solely on the [Rinella] tanks.

But what we do have is a malleable location, and a hardworking and skilled workforce. And by “industrial scale”, what do you mean? Quality films don’t necessarily mean they have to cost millions of euros to make. Story, technique, talent – these are the key aspects that we need to nurture.

Looking beyond the local scene: the world of film itself, as we speak, is in the process of changing. Like other industries – for instance, music – it is struggling to find new avenues of expression: Netflix, Youtube, etc. Surely, this creates opportunities, as well as challenges, for any film industry. How do you see Malta’s industry adapting to these changes?

Truth be told, we’re still talking about ‘creating a national film policy’ here. We’re not even at the point where we can have the sort of conversations that the rest of the film world is currently focused on: such as diversity in film, sustainable environmental practices, etc. etc. Before we can talk about ‘adapting to global changes’... let us sit together, and discuss how to change the current status quo, so as to at least be able to move forward pragmatically…