Peter Farrugia speaks with Marc Zimmermann, chairman of the Cinema Heritage Group, exploring Malta’s cinema story from World War II through today’s online revolution.
It begins with a darkened room, sometime circa 1890. We’re in Verdala Palace and there’s a governor in the front row. The projectionist gives his delicate machine some much-needed encouragement, secures a reel and hopes for the best.
Then there’s a burst of sudden brightness, the room lights up with movement. Shadows dance on a sheet and everything is somehow new. This is the first time a film has ever been screened in Malta, and its is organisations like the Cinema Heritage Group that want to preserve these cherished stories.
Established in 2006 with the goal of bringing together cinema enthusiasts and industry experts, the Cinema Heritage Group is an NGO keenly aware of its long-term goals.
Originally based out ofIreland, the group has turned its focus on Malta and the wealth of cinema-going history this island has to offer.
“The group connects with other professionals and their research feeds into what we’re working on,” says group chairman Marc Zimmermann.
“We are a mix of cinephiles and professionals, academics and cinema owners. It’s apassion.”
As part of his work with the Cinema Heritage Group,Zimmermann consults on international projects, including advice for regeneration work and the historical preservation ofcinema heritage.
“We’re interested in holistically preserving the story of cinema and architectural aspects are a part of that. Cinemas are seen as throwaway and some examples have been demolished,” he warns, listing theHollywood in Ħamrun, Stoll in Senglea and Mġarr’s Pilot as examples of destroyed cinemas.
Some structures may be mundane but others have intrinsic merit like the Rialto in Cospicua, unique for being the only art deco cinema in Malta.
“It’s now been scheduled as a grade two building – that has been secured.”
Still, the building is only one part of the cinema experience that Zimmermann and his team are dedicated to safeguarding.
A single screen cinema, ornate or streamlined, is a valuable element in the social history of “going to the movies. We aim to record and preserve history for posterity, looking to the future with a vision. Malta has agreat history in cinematicterms. It’s a dense fabric rich in memories.”
An important element in the group’s work is to create an “oral history bank” that recreatespeople’s connections with the industry. Cinema owners,projectionists, ushers andfilm-goers have their own anecdotes. Zimmermann recounts some of the wonderful stories that, without the group’sinitiative, may have been lost forever.
“During WW2 the cinema had an important role in Malta; with constant bombing those films offered some kind of escapism. Cinema reels were being brought in on submarines and projectionists would cycle down to the harbour and carry the reels, strapped on their bikes.”
A darker incident involves the Regent cinema in Valletta which was bombed during a screening. Over 100 people died, including many Air Force pilots.
“It was perhaps one of the most devastating wartime blows, the bombing of that cinema,” says Zimmermann.
Although big cinemas seem to stick around longer, more modest theatres have their own tales to tell.
“The Coliseum in Valletta was quite small, unlike, say, the Orpheum in Gzira which is very grand. But the Queen of England, then still a princess, picked the Coliseum to watch a film. Her staff simply contacted the owner and she sat in the balcony with her family around her.”
Forging stronger ties between local and foreign filmmakers and making people aware of the structures and facilities available in Malta are all on the group’s agenda.
“Fifty years ago, there was a nascent film industry; this year, June was the busiest month for filming in Malta,” he says. Certainly Malta has become quite competitive, but the push to improve a network for filmmakers in Malta is ongoing – a process that needs to see various elements of the industry come together to improve resources and upgrade facilities.
With cinema going near ubiquitous, it’s difficult to imagine the profound shift that occurred during the 80s and 90s away from ‘local’ cinemas to the multiplex.
“We can see a decline in cinema-going in Malta throughout the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. The introduction of television and other factors like increased paid holidays and affordable flights, and now the internet, all contributed to this decline”.
Although the internet has made things difficult for the cinema, that can provide an impetus for some much-needed change.
“We have events planned including our own screenings,” says Zimmermann, “tours of historical cinemas and information about the social history of cinema in Malta. What the islands need is more festivals and greater interest”.
Relieving the pressures of Hollywood’s dominance on the industry, European film festivals could find a welcome niche in Malta (like the one provided by Kinemastik).
Zimmermann is currently writing a book about cinemahistory and cinema-going in Malta, including reflections on Malta’s social history.
Encouraging research onhistoric cinemas, educatingpeople about their heritageand how best to preserve itare the cornerstone aims setby the Cinema HeritageGroup going forward, dedi-cated to keeping Malta’scinema story both relevant and authentic.