In 1972, the late Cecil Satariano took his 8mm camera to Valletta and filmed his critically acclaimed short film Giuseppi. He did so without applying for free grants from anywhere. None existed.
The film negative and developing abroad obviously cost him quite some money but, otherwise, with a story of one man walking in the city streets, the filming was an inexpensive one and an intelligent one at that.
This ‘cheap’ short film was enough to establish Cecil as a filmmaker of serious potential. The film was received very well by international festivals and Cecil was to become arguably one of Malta’s most promising filmmakers.
Short films are good career launchers, even if Cecil never chose to take up filmmaking as a full-time career. Not only do they showcase a filmmaker’s artistic talents but they also prove his/her ability to survive the financial restrictions commonly imposed by the film industry and the ability to create the ‘magic’ on screen with little or no money. As Orson Wells had once said: “The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.”
Furthermore, a story of two persons in a room does not need expensive visual effects or complicated camera movements. It can be done inexpensively and, yet, can be enough to prove a filmmaker’s potential.
Most renowned film schools expect their students to make shorts with only a couple thousand euros and some with far less. Students usually have to beg, steal and borrow favours to get their film made.
These stress tests are part of their education, their growth and experience to prove they can handle the pressure of larger projects with larger risks.
Nowadays, with a high-definition camera, a computer and basic editing software, short films are no longer the financial challenges they used to be in the past. No doubt, Cecile would be turning in his grave if he heard any Maltese claim that a short film was not possible because no funds were awarded. Sadly, such claims exist.
It is very questionable whether the Malta Film Fund should be funding film shorts unless an applicant has already completed his/her own “successful” short. This is the best way to judge if one can cut the mustard, considering this is a film fund and not a training or experimental fund. A short film that is good in technical quality but fails to engage an audience should not be regarded as successful.
Fortunately, funding of the development of film shorts (that is, preparing them without completing them) has been discontinued from this year.
The Malta Film Fund, launched in 2008, is an excellent initiative by the government to help create an indigenous industry. The road ahead is a long one but, at least, the foundations are being laid. The challenge now is to ensure that the distribution of public funds is consistent with the goals of the fund.
Such a national fund should aim to assist in the financing of films or documentaries that are marketable but otherwise difficult to finance.
Also, projects should be chosen based on their potential for the widespread promotion locally and/or abroad of Malta’s cultural identity, in a broad sense, regardless of their commercial viability.
Of course, a commercially-viable project should also be assisted. Furthermore, the quality strived for should be that of an international standard and nothing less. It is very difficult for a short film to reach all these goals in the true sense.
In the last four years, nearly €1 million has been distributed. Yet, the only production that was completed, served to promote Malta’s cultural identity, reached an acceptable quality and which can be reasonably hailed as a success due to its long run at the cinemas was the documentary released this year, Dear Dom.
The Malta Film Commission is holding interesting public information sessions about the film fund. In a recent session, David Serge, a cinematographer in his own right, argued that the film fund lacks adequate quality control.
With minimal pessimism, there is the danger of the fund becoming a Christmas handout or a mere lottery event should projects not be wisely selected and if self-claimed filmmakers are not being held accountable for quality results.
While it is difficult assuring that a film will be successful, it is not unreasonable to expect a minimum standard in order to maximise the chances of reaching the fund’s goals. If, in a given year, there are not enough projects that satisfy the criteria, then all allocated funds need not be spent and the surplus can be carried forward into the next year.
Perhaps it is time for an event to take place once every two years to showcase the solid results of the fund, the films that have actually been completed and which have clearly promoted Malta’s cultural identity in a successful manner.
Those projects that did not reach these goals should not be swept under the carpet as, otherwise, no lessons will be learnt and public funds cannot be used more wisely next time around.