The Dwejra “sandowning” is a sad episode both for Maltese who are proud of their heritage and for filmmakers who carry out their jobs responsibly.
In recent weeks, some NGOs questioned why a filming permit was granted for Dwejra. Moreover, a spokesman for Alternattiva Demokratika said “it is well known that filming companies tend to ignore limitations imposed by regulatory authorities”.
Such sweeping derogatory statements about the film industry are baseless.
The majority of film producers are very conscious of leaving a location as good as they found it. Some actually share the motto that, where possible, a location should be left in a better state than found. For example, back in 2000 the owners and managers of St Angelo Wharf’s interiors and those of Villa Bighi had praised the production of The Count Of Monte Cristo for leaving the locations (I quote their words) “better than found”.
Dwejra and such key locations play an integral part in some filmmakers’ decisions to come to Malta. This economic activity is very reliant on the environment’s preservation and accessibility.
Monte Cristo director Kevin Reynolds sacrificed part of a busy shooting day in Valletta in order to be whisked off by helicopter to Dwejra to achieve a sunset shot with his lead actors on the rocks.
In 2008, one of Germany’s famous directors, Michael Herbig, chose to film in Malta largely because of the beauty and availability of Dwejra. Filming was further extended to the water tanks in Kalkara and over €1 million were injected into the Maltese economy for a four-week film shoot.
There are numerous stories in Malta where sensitive locations were used with extreme care. Statistically, the chances of any bad incidents are well under five per cent. This notwithstanding, it makes sense for the Malta Environment and Planning Authority to take a hard look at the safeguards in place.
Often, such incidents are the result of negligence and/or arrogance by one or two individuals and not necessarily representative of the intentions of the whole production and certainly not at all representative of an entire industry.
If a man vandalises Mnajdra temples, the government’s priority is to catch the perpetrator and to revise its security measures on the site. People are not banned from entering the site simply because of a one-off incident.
The big question is whether Mepa will implement intelligent safeguards that will avoid a repeat of this abuse but will also leave future respectable producers unscathed from this isolated incident.
Mepa did nothing wrong in giving a permit with its usual list of conditions. Its job is to protect the environment and not to unreasonably stall economic activity. Also, a bank guarantee of anywhere from €5,000 to €25,000 is reasonable, keeping in mind this sum does not limit the financial damages that may be claimed from the production.
With hindsight, it is obvious a guarantee of €15,000 was not enough to make this recent production tread carefully within the boundaries of the permit. But bank guarantees or “bonds” should not automatically be increased for future applicants without due diligence.
The following are measures Mepa should consider implementing in order to safeguard the island’s heritage while not blaming future producers for others faults.
1) It should draw up an application form specific to the film industry rather than one about general events. The form should request background information about the local production manager and/or the location manager being assigned to the location. Mepa would then not only assess the environmental impact of the filming but also the risk factor of the applicant defaulting on the permit conditions. Mepa would consider if the applicant had broken other permit regulations in the past and the severity of such violations.
2) The bond requested should be commensurate to the risk factor mentioned above and to the cost to remedy the most likely damage that might be caused to the location. An applicant with a good reputation and/or with minimal construction works should have a low bond.
3) Based on the new risk assessment, site inspections should be either periodic or continuous. If the risk assessment is low, inspections would be periodic and their cost would be covered by one flat fee that allows the production to know where it stands cost-wise.
4) There should be a list of penalties with different amounts that depend on the severity of the rules broken. There should be a distinction between a minor violation, which may lead to simply a verbal warning, and a serious breakage arising either from gross negligence or intent.
5) If an important rule is broken, Mepa should put the permit holder on its radar screen. For example, if a permit holder starts construction works without informing Mepa, then this should immediately switch on a red light on Mepa monitors. If necessary, inspections should be switched from periodic to continuous, obviously at the cost of the permit holder.
6) If the permit holder damages the location and if the remedy is a sensitive one, Mepa should not only penalise the permit holder but it should also consider handling the “repair works” itself in order to minimise any further damage, with the reasonable cost obviously charged to the permit holder.
7) Filming activities that do not involve any sort of set construction or any need for heavy equipment beyond a certain weight limit or vehicles to enter the protected zone should not require a Mepa permit. Mepa cannot afford to waste its valuable time and focus on films that present no more risk than tourists do. Moreover, it should minimise the time for permit processing in order to allow TV adverts to come and film in Malta at short notice. Such productions usually have far less than a month to prepare for filming.
It is easy to blame Mepa because it is, after all, one of the most controversial regulators on the island. But one should remember that shortcomings in Mepa monitoring do not absolve the permit holder from basic good management to respect a location or from his/her moral and legal responsibilities.
Fortunately, well over 95 per cent of productions and location managers who worked in Malta are well aware of their obligations and have enough common knowledge to know how to act very responsibly. The words “abuse” or “negligence” are not part of their vocabulary.
In conclusion and with a broader view, it is worth noting that this sort of incident is invited when filming activity overwhelms this tiny island and cost-conscious producers make the stupid mistake of trying out local inexperienced production personnel. Handing out cash rebates to producers is alone not going to sustain the growth of this industry. Proper training is part of an important two-thronged approach the governments have failed to follow for decades.
The author is a film line producer who has been working in the film industry for the past 22 years and has played an integral part in the development of the local servicing industry.
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