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When Rebecca Cremona met Simshar survivor Simon Bugeja she soon realized that she had stumbled on a story that was important to tell. The result promises to be Malta’s first full-length feature film for international distribution. Text by Sandra Aquilina
“It’s funny but I don’t think I ever really thought of myself as particularly Maltese until I left Malta,” says Rebecca Cremona. “Then suddenly I found myself packing pastizzi and gbejniet and learnt how to bake mqarrun il-forn – it felt as if somehow being away made the sense of identity stronger.”
It was a feeling that was vital to Rebecca’s latest film project – Simshar the film – a rendering of the story which, three years ago, stirred a whole island when five men – including an 11-year-old-boy and a Somali immigrant – spent several days at sea after their boat exploded. While a whole island held its breath, only one survivor was to make it back home.
Being away from home allowed her to see Malta and the implications of the story with fresh eyes, says Rebecca who, with her black hair and dark eyes, is recognizably Maltese. But the film is not a documentary of the tragic turn of events, she explains. Rather the Simshar is used as a narrative vehicle for the story’s three strands: the story of the fishermen at sea intertwines with the political story of an immigrant rescue and with a love story between a Maltese soldier and an Eritrean. “I like to think that it works on the same level as movies like Crash or Traffic – where separate stories appear to be linked thematically – and then converge further until they affect each other on a narrative level.”
It is a technique which allows for the treatment of large and complex subjects and the film’s real subject is in fact – survival through migration – words which will strike multiple chords in every Maltese heart.
“Immigration is a really complex issue and we are not proposing a solution. The only stance we take is a humane one. But the film does set out to show that everybody has their reasons and that this is an issue that goes beyond governments and can affect everyone on a personal level. The political as personal is core.”
It might still be early days to judge – but the teaser trailer – a two-minute movie showing scenes of Maltese village life, a luzzu blessing and open water scenes – received more than 16,000 views in a week. Shown in the trailer, sitting at the back of a luzzu, barely recognizable, is Simon Bugeja himself, the Simshar’s sole survivor. It was after spending several hours in conversation with him that Rebecca realized how the story lent itself on several levels.
“I realized that what’s going on at sea is really quite incredible,” she says. “The sea has a law of its own.” It took a few conversations to realize the full extent of this, however. “It seemed to me unbelievable that five men could spend all those days at sea in the Mediterranean – which carries so much traffic – and not be spotted.” Then, slowly, the truth began to emerge. “They were spotted, of course – but they were not picked up.” Mistaken for immigrants, they were left to their fate.
Rebecca spoke to fishermen, captain trawlers and people involved in the fishing community.
“Some were afraid that they would be overpowered by the immigrants they saved, others feared disease and others mentioned the huge loss of time when boats and ships are detained for identification or security purposes. And suddenly – what seems so obvious, saving a life – is not so obvious anymore.”
More and more, she realized that she had stumbled on a story which was important to tell. “Especially now, with the events in North Africa. These people leave for a reason… if it were us, would we leave? You have to see both sides.”
And yet this young film-maker almost did not make it to the film industry. At 18, she had already applied for the law course at the University of Malta. Then, suddenly, “someone close passed away. And I just realized that life is too short to spend it doing something I am not passionate about.”
So she applied for a degree in comparative literature and film theory at the University of Warwick. Eventually she found herself on a traineeship on Spielberg’s Munich and made it on to the American Film Institute Conservatory. Later she got a scholarship from the Art Centre College of Design in LA, where Rebecca transferred to complete her Masters degree in film directing. While at Arts Centre, she wrote, directed and co-produced Magdalene, an intimate short film set in 1930s California, which was to win a Directors Guild of America student award, Jury Prize and an honourable mention at the Student Emmys. She also spent some time with Kennedy/Marshall, doing script development.
“It was great because I could see what sort of scripts are going around Hollywood.”
She smiles. “I haven’t had much time off in the past 10 years.”
Currently the film’s development stage has been completed – the script and look of the film are ready – and Rebecca has returned to Malta to conclude financing before moving on to filming. Locations for the 78 scenes have been selected, at least on an aesthetic level. Costs are estimated at €3.5 million, the highest ever for a Maltese film but still a low-budget movie, she explains. Talks are also underway with various actors of international repute and, like Magdalene, the film will be released internationally.
Despite Malta’s strong film service industry, the local film industry is embryonic, she says, although the Malta Film Fund will provide some help with this. The Film Fund is also one of the film’s sponsors, together with River Dream, BOV and Air Malta.
“We had to ship cameras from abroad, for instance, which meant a heavy additional cost although these were somewhat offset by the fact that you don’t have to pay huge fees for locations in Malta.”
Still the trailer entailed months of work and was done on a close to zero budget, casting members from Rebecca’s family and familiar locations. But the core team is principally Maltese, she says. The theme track for the trailer was written by Ruben Zahra with lyrics by Trevor Zahra, although in the trailer the words have been changed to an indistinguishable hum.
“It’s funny because the music has been criticized for its Arabic influences – but that is Maltese music, it derives from Arabic music. We have this perception of ourselves as not being influenced by the Arab world; we like to disassociate for multiple reasons and I think our insistence on Catholicism is part of that disassociation. But then we call the Catholic God ‘Alla’… What could be more of a contradiction than that?”
The film will be dedicated to the memory of 11-year-old Theo, whose body was never recovered.
“It was the only request by Sharon, Simon’s wife – and I would have done it anyway.”
Now 27, Rebecca has been away from Malta for several years. Perhaps it is this which has enabled her to create a story which is so Maltese in many ways.
“I think it’s important to be on the outside – but then you also have to be on the inside. How else can you understand contradictions like Malta being at a crossing roads and bringing cultures together and its island mentality? This is why it was important to come back…” she says.
“I think being able to juggle those two things – seeing things from the outside and the inside – gives birth to some interesting insights.”
Will she return to LA after Simshar?
“Yes, but I will never leave Malta completely.” For a moment, she casts around for words. “You know, I might have to leave – but I will never leave…”
Photography by Alan Carville