Movies is magic | Slavko Vukanovic

There is something magical about Malta’s connection to the film industry. SLAVKO VUKANOVIC, organiser of the Kinemastik Short Festival, on why this island seems made for the movies…

Slavko Vukanovic
Slavko Vukanovic

We must have made a surreal sight, Slavko Vukanovic and I, in the main lobby of the Phoenicia Hotel. Both of us were suitably dressed… for an early August heatwave. Yet both of us were also positively drenched to the bone; and I for one was almost shivering with cold.

‘It’s global warming,’ I had just heard one of the hotel guests remark. ‘One minute you’re basking in sub-tropical heat… next thing you know you’re caught up in the middle of a mini-monsoon lasting just over 10 minutes…’

Slavko arrives after inspecting the damage at the Garden of Rest across the road: venue for that very evening’s Kinemastik Short Festival (11th edition). Nothing too serious, it would seem. They managed to get the equipment indoors before the storm… even though they may have to rebuild the makeshift bar in the corner. But the place is waterlogged, and will have to be cleaned up before the first screening some eight hours ahead.

All part, I suppose, of what Mel Brooks must have had in mind, when he immortalised the catchphrase “Movies is Magic” in ‘History of the World Part One’. Just to talk about the movies is to somehow invite the unexpected: anything and everything, including heavy thunderstorms in August, might happen.

And to talk about movies we have come: short movies, to be precise (which might explain why the downpour didn’t last very long). Anything between 1.03 minutes (e.g, ‘Fake Propaganda Video for Isis’, by Donna Abbabzadeh) to 37 minutes long (e.g, Your Heart At Random’, by Aude-Lea Rapin). In a word, the sort of films an NGO called Kinemastik has dedicated itself to screening since 2003.

“There was a little bar called ‘Ghand Alex’, at the bottom of Valletta, where I used to organise film screenings every Sunday,” Slavko Vukanovic, one of its founders, recalls when asked about the first film festival 11 years ago. “The place was a shambles, but it was full of memories that were film-related… because the ‘Alex’ who owned the bar had been involved in the film industry himself. He was one of those Valletta guys who had worked on the set of ‘Midnight Express’: there were posters of that film, and others, all over the bar. He also had a screen and a projector. So I approached him and asked him if we could run a film club there…”

Even in its early days, the as yet unnamed film club somehow attracted attention. Attendance would vary, but Slavko remembers gatherings of up to 30 or 40 people on some nights. “Little by little, Maltese film-makers or film-lovers started gathering there. And I met more and more people who had made short films of their own. Eventually we decided we wanted to do a short film festival…”

The idea concretised during a conversation between what would become the core group behind ‘Kinemastik’: including Emma Mattei (who would later screen a film of her own, ‘Terminus’); and London-based illustrator Chris Bianchi, who was in the process of setting up the arts collective, ‘LeGun’, among others.

The first festival was held in 2005. “I set it up myself: there was no Kinemastik yet,” Slavko recalls. “I carried all the chairs down myself, and it was then that I realised our choice venue was the stupidest one imaginable: Gardjola Gardens in Floriana…”

Tucked away in a fold of the bastions above the Grand Harbour, Gardjola Gardens have everything a festival organiser could possibly hope for. Stunning, iconic views… a bastion that can double up as a giant screen… secluded nooks and crannies where smaller screens could be set up… but first, you have to actually get there.

“There was a super long walk down from behind the Central Bank, through a tunnel, up and down stairs… I did that walk around 17 times in one night. Then I realised that if this was going to become something regular, it would need an organisation behind it.”

Emma Mattei came up with the name. Chris Bianchi designed the first poster, and has done artwork for Kinemastik ever since.
“We showed about 14 films in all, five of which were Maltese. The rest were films I found on the Internet, and managed to contact the film-makers and get their approval. It wasn’t professionally done. You could see that things came together more or less there and then… but that, I suppose, was part of the charm.”

Whether it was the charm, the films or the location, Kinemastik quickly gained a following… even if Slavko tells me it never really looked for one.

“We have never had a powerful marketing machine. Kinemastik was always – how can I put this? – a small thing, really. Which is how we wanted it. We never promoted the festival in any serious way, either. But word got around very quickly. The festival’s name grew much more than Kinemastik itself did… and all of a sudden people started sending us more and more films. Film-makers from all sorts of places would contact us… In our fourth year we had one guy who travelled from Austin, Texas, at his own expense, to come to the festival.”

It eventually grew enough to be noticed by potential sponsors. “At one point we were invited to form part of the Malta Arts Festival. This would have meant access to funding, better marketing, and so on. But we didn’t want that. It was very important for us to try and keep Kinemastik’s identity in our own hands, and to steer it in a direction where we felt it could have its own life...”

Ironically, part of this identity may have been formed by Slavko’s ‘stupid’ choice of venue 11 years ago. Gardjola Gardens may be a logistical nightmare, but the location itself undeniably lent something to the festival’s appeal. Same goes for this year’s venue, the Garden of Rest overlooking Pieta’: which is actually a cemetery with significant historical connotations. Was this also something that came about by chance? Or is the venue as much part of the festival’s identity as the films themselves?

“All our locations are logistical nightmares,” Slavko replies. “And everyone we rent equipment from hates us for it. But there is a reason why we go for these places… why we like to expose sites which are generally unknown to the public. There are so many beautiful places here that are still untouched, yet still well taken care of. There’s a kind of political message to it as well, you could say: to take care of what exists, and what we’re forgetting. It is these hidden places, off the beaten path, that form the true beauty of Malta. This is why people fall in love with the place…”

Does the same sort of political approach he outlines above extend also to the choice of films? Glancing at the programme, some of this year’s selection seems to touch on sensitive (and certainly topical) issues: racism, nationalism and so on. Last year’s entries included a dramatic documentary about the Syrian civil war. Is there a common thread between these choices?

“Emma is the programmer, so she chose the films shown on the main screen. But if I may say something in her name: when choosing films, we’re interested in whatever’s contemporary, whatever’s happening now. Having said that, it’s not the only factor. As festival organisers, we’re kind of a medium between what audiences want to watch, and what film-makers are producing. There is no rule as such. Sometimes the programme veers off in other directions: we concentrate on the absurd, the surreal, and so on. This year, and maybe last year as well, we had a lot of politically heavy themes. Next year, who knows? Ultimately, what matters most is the quality of the film.”

This brings us to the centre of all the ‘movie magic’, as it were. While Kinemastik Short Film Festival was slowly evolving, Malta’s professional film industry seems to have likewise grown significantly in scope. Yet it remains very much rooted in the servicing of foreign productions. Kinemastik deals with films at a lower level of the industry scale: so has Slavko Vukanovic seen any indication of a budding local film industry producing movies of its own?

“In these 11 years we have seen so much change: different people getting involved, many of them going on to make their own films… some have even made feature films. I won’t discuss the quality, but something has been happening here. Technology has made it easier and cheaper in recent years. That certainly had a lot to do with it.

“But there may be something else. Film-wise, the local industry has grown a lot recently. But Malta started identifying itself as a nation that has ‘something to do with films’ for a lot longer than that. Back when we started in that Valletta bar, I remember talking to people who had worked on Midnight Express and other films shot locally. They would tell me about when Jean-Claude Van Damme could be seen jumping from roof to roof in Valletta. And I still can’t believe how films have been shot here using the same backdrops. Like the Bridge Bar area [lower East Street]… how many times have we seen that in a movie?”

We could add Dwejra’s Azure Window to the list, and maybe even the Birgu Waterfront (which doubled up as Marseilles in Cut-Throat Island).

“There is something magical about Malta as a film location,” Slavko concludes. “And it’s not just the light, and the colours, and all that. There’s a connection. A sense of belonging. People take pride in being involved in the film industry… you can feel it.”

It is this sense of connection that keeps initiatives like the Kinemastik film festival afloat. But wouldn’t a healthy dose of investment also help… not just in the festival, but also in the industry at large?

“It would help certainly. The financial part is important: yes, we need to rent the screens, to pay expenses… but you need dedication as well. In this day and age, it is rare to find 10 people who are foolish enough to dedicate so much of their time to something that will never be profitable for them. So when people gather around something like that, it must have some sort of value which is more important than money...”

Here Slavko breaks off to recount his very earliest experience of Malta… which turns out to have a touch of movie magic about it, too.

“About three days after arriving in Malta in 1995, I ended up having dinner in Elio Lombardi’s house. Totally by chance. I was hitchhiking… I didn’t know how to get from place to place yet… and he stopped to give me a ride. He invited me to dinner at his Naxxar home, I met his family, and so on. But what struck me was that his car was full of posters of his own movies. He is one example of the sort of dedication I mean… I don’t know how many films Elio Lombardi has made. Thousands, possibly. Just yesterday I was in a bar in Zebbug, and they were watching a Lombardi film on VCR. People still love his films. They’re proud of them. And that’s a beautiful thing…”