Mintoff: man, myth and bullshit

Contrary to widespread misconception, the ‘Dom’ alluded to in the movie title “Dear Dom” is NOT (repeat: NOT) an abbreviation for ‘Dominatrix’.

I feel this is an important detail, which may explain why the same movie has sparked such intense controversy, both locally and abroad, since hitting cinemas earlier this month.

It also speaks volumes about the film's mixed critical reception to date... for instance, why there is so much (unconfirmed) talk of people storming out of cinemas in droves.

Well, you can hardly blame them, can you? Those people paid good money to watch a movie about a latex-clad, whip-wielding bondage queen... and what did they get instead? A middle-aged, bespectacled man whose only concession to leather involved an outrageously buckled belt (oh, and the occasional shit-brown jacket here and there).... and whose only 'sex toy' turns out to have been the Labour Party's parliamentary whip.

Honestly, who wouldn't be disappointed? And besides: if you go to the cinema expecting plenty of sex and violence... how can you not feel slightly short-changed, when the only 'sex' taking place on screen involves a bunch of upper- and middle-class Maltese families being royally shafted up the rear end, some time back in the distant 1970s? (Not, of course, that I have any direct personal knowledge of such sordid matters... but I believe the technical term for that style of movie-making is 'retro porn'.)

 

As for myself, I must confess I have not yet actually come round to watching Dear Dom... partly out of sheer laziness from my end; but partly also because I actually did a little research beforehand, and ascertained what it was really all about before making any reservations at the box office. ('No dominatrix, no party', etc...)

But still: going only on various public reactions expressed to date, it seems that 'not having watched a movie' is no longer considered a valid reason to keep one's ignorant opinions strictly to oneself. On the contrary: it seems there is a growing number of self-styled 'critics' out there, who have developed a totally innovative approach to entire the discipline of film criticism. Something along the lines of: "I haven't seen the movie... but I still think it's a bucket of crap."

And let's face it: if others can get away with that sort of nonsense... why not yours truly? Why can't I also write my own review of the movie 'Dear Dom', despite the fact that I haven't actually sat through the film for long enough to form an educated opinion?

Personally, I can think of two very good reasons why not. One, because I happen to believe that the same rules should theoretically apply to everyone equally.... which means that, just as I cannot bring myself to respect people who would presume to pan a film (or a book, or a play, or a restaurant, or a record, or a concert, or a fashion shoot, etc) in the absence of any direct first-hand experience... so, too, would I automatically lose my own self-respect for doing the same thing.

The second, far more important reason is that... unlike any of these critics, I do not feel automatically compelled, through the force of sheer ideological motivation alone, to either uphold or debunk any of the million myths to have accrued around the persona of Dom Mintoff in recent history. Quite frankly, I just don't care enough about the subject to feel incensed or enthused by the prospect of a film about 'Dear Dom'. After all, the 'Dom' in question is simply not 'dear' enough to me for any of that.

I am, however, professionally interested in the film... as I imagine any active political observer would be. But there is no ultra-romanticised notion of 'Mintoffianism' currently lodged in my own mind - as there so clearly is in other people's - that needs defending or reinforcing. And even if there were: it's not as though I have any compelling reason of my own to attack other people's interpretations just to make sure my own preferred version of history prevails over all others.

 

At a glance, however, it seems that the same cannot really be said for most of the official reactions I have read to date... especially those that hide behind a vaguely academic veneer, in order to indict the movie for the grave crime of stubbornly refusing to buy into their own historical revisionist notions of the same topic.

Let's start with the obvious: Mark Camilleri (of Ir-Realta'/Li Tkisser Sewwi fame) chose to write a critical blog on the subject, which berated 'Dear Dom' for its lack of academic depth. I won't comment on his actual criticism in this regard (who knows? Maybe the film really is academically shallow...) But it is difficult not to comment on Camilleri's opening sentence: "First of all I didn't watch the film and I don't need to...."

Huh? Why on earth not, might I ask? Does Mark Camilleri belong to that rare category of omniscient media critics who know absolutely everything there is to know about a movie... before it's even been released? Oh, hang on a sec: he goes on to tell us the reason himself in the very next sentence:

"As an aspiring historian I have learned how to judge historiography by its bibliography. It's not worth anybody's time to look up historiographical objects which lack proper sources and 'Dear Dom' was produced without reference to ANY primary sources..."

 

Hmm. I must say this does not exactly fill me with boundless optimism regarding the calibre of historian we can expect from the University of Malta in years to come. Clearly, we are dealing with aspiring historians who do not know the difference between an academic paper published in a peer-reviewed journal... and a commercial movie, made within very specific budgetary parameters, with the express purpose of being shown on the big screen.

In fact I can't help but wonder whether Camilleri applies the same stringent criteria to any of the articles he himself publishes in his own magazine. After all, I don't recall any footnotes (still less a bibliography) in the notorious edition which contained 'Li Tkisser Sewwi'. And with good reason: it was a campus magazine, you know... not the goddamn Lancet.

By the same token, 'Dear Dom' is a movie - in documentary form, granted, but a movie nonetheless - and not an exhaustive academic treatise on Maltese history. And there's something else, too. To the best of my knowledge, it doesn't even make any extraordinary claims that require particularly extraordinary proof.

Quite frankly I would have sympathised with Camilleri's point a good deal more, had 'Dear Dom' made any wild claims that flew in the face of all accepted versions of who Mintoff actually was. For instance, if the film claimed that he was gay, and had a secret affair with Eddie Fenech Adami... or that he was the illegitimate love-child of Edward VII and a Bormla fish hawker... or an alien life-form, that had appropriated the body of an unsuspecting Cospicua architect to enact its own nefarious designs of global (dom)ination..

If any such unlikely assertion was indeed made in the course of the film... then yes, absolutely: I would expect it to be backed up by thorough research, including primary AND secondary sources, all neatly listed in a bibliography at the end.

My understanding, however, is that the film merely interviews a hatful of people about what Mintoff meant to them personally... and concludes (or so I'm told) with the film-maker's own, less-than-positive verdict on the man - in which case, what need was there for further sourcing? What more research is even required? I would have thought we are all entitled to our own opinions in the matter. Is Mark Camilleri suggesting otherwise?

 

Perhaps not. To be fair, Camilleri does not argue that the film should never have been made (merely that it wasn't very good, which is another thing altogether - or would have been, had he actually watched it). But what about Fr Mark Montebello, who denounced the movie as 'banal and insolent'? Again I'll reserve judgment on the 'banal' part, for reasons outlined above. But 'insolent'? Why is the film 'insolent', if not for presuming to express an opinion on a subject which the same Fr Mark evidently considers to be above or beyond the scope of any ordinary mortal's ability to judge?

Quite frankly I have heard this reasoning before, and it pertains to that vast family of fallacious arguments that gave us notions such as 'anathema' and 'heresy'. It's the equivalent of drawing a line in the sand, and unilaterally declaring that anyone who crosses that line will have 'overstepped' some kind of divinely-imposed frontier, and must suffer the consequences.

But this, I greatly fear, is nothing but bullshit. Most people would instantly recognise it for the bullshit it is, when the same reasoning is used in religious arguments: you know, the sort of argument which generally dismisses any criticism of religion (or indeed any opinion that diverts from accepted religious heterodoxy) precisely on grounds of 'insolence'.

And if an argument is plainly bullshit in the context of religion, it is equally plainly bullshit when applied to politics. In fact, it's worse.

The very idea that any single interpretation of historical/political events is somehow 'beyond discussion' is nothing more than a dogma, and a particularly odious one at that. And just like the dogmas we traditionally associate with religion, it is dictated by the selfsame primordial urge towards hero-worship and idolatry: the herd instinct, whereby vast multitudes are automatically drawn, sheep-like, to follow (from which 'worship' is but a small step away) formidable characters such as the patriarchs and prophets of old... who in time got to be placed on so very high a pedestal, so far out of reach of us ordinary mortals that - to all intents and purposes - there was practically no distinction between popular veneration of patriarchs, prophets and ultimately politicians, and the spiritual devotion traditionally reserved for God, Jesus, Our Lady, and the rest of the holy brigade.

Applied to Mintoff, it is evident that the same devotion simply brooks no criticism whatsoever. Which is not exactly surprising, seeing as Mintoff himself didn't either.

Like 'Dear Dom', the defenders of the historically revised version of Mintoff are likewise uncompromising, unyielding, and viscerally hostile towards any attempt at critical analysis which goes beyond the obedient acceptance of what they themselves seem to think is some kind of 'Gospel truth'.

But there is no 'Gospel truth' at work here. There is no single, universally-acknowledged reality that was 'the Mintoff era'; no common consensus that we can safely agree upon. Still less is there a dogma handed down from on high... and with which it a crime or a heresy to remotely disagree.

So Pierre Ellul thinks Mintoff was 'vindictive', does he? I, for one, find it very hard not to sympathise with that assessment. I certainly do not consider it is an 'insolent' thing to say; in fact many people I know who were dispossessed (or much worse) at some point in the 1970s and 1980s would think that - all things considered - Mintoff was actually let off rather lightly.

But to be fair, these people are motivated in their own views by a deep-seated, personal (and not exactly misplaced) antipathy towards the man. Their vision is jaundiced; but no less jaundiced than those whose undisguised adulation of Mintoff prompts them to automatically dismiss other views... sometimes before even hearing them.

 

Personally, I would have thought this much was obvious to just about anyone, really. But it is clearly not obvious to editors, aspiring historians and historical biographers alike... and this I find a little disturbing.

 

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