Before the traditional Maltese buses are driven off the stage, they have been cornered into a creative documentary to keep a record of them for posterity.
Bus Terminus, as the work has been titled, is the attempt of three friends over a week in April and May to document some of the vehicles, their drivers and owners. The result is “simply, a candid portrait of a week in Malta’s ever-changing history”.
With no budget, Englishman Harry Malt and his Maltese friends, Duncan Bone and Emma Mattei, co-directors and producers, captured the buses on film, “creating a capsule of what will be lost”.
And while they are aware that “popular opinion seems to be that the whole system is in dire need of change, it is not our intention to argue the matter either way”. On the contrary, they are encouraging a long-term view.
For Ms Mattei, the cinema vérité-style work is devoid of comment, bias, investigation and sentimentality but just captures the rhythms and movements of the terminus before they fade out.
Their shooting schedule happened to coincide with the demolition of Valletta’s City Gate and the start of works on the bus terminus itself. “These events lent an air of change to the general atmosphere; a subtext to our work,” says Mr Malt.
He had visited Malta in 2000 and one of the many aspects that held his imagination was the hand-painted buses. “I still have some holiday photos I took of them, their decorative finery contrasting their brutish, rumbling functionality.
“To me, these intriguing, mobile works of art appeared to not only reflect their owners’ sentiments – humorous, mildly offensive, sometimes romantic and often inspirational – but also to act as an extension of the wonderful idiosyncrasies of the island in general that I enjoy so much.”
Ten years later, on another visit, he discussed the news that the ageing transport system was due for an overhaul and it was agreed that someone should document the buses before they disappear.
“Looking back at it now, we feel we have only scraped the surface of what is a massive subject,” Mr Malt maintains. “These dirty and noisy works of art may drive you to distruction now but, as we were told by one bus garage owner, we will miss them once they’re gone.”
Mr Malt feels privileged to have met, among others, Joe Farrugia, the sole remaining practitioner of tberfil (painting buses). “To have watched him at work and to hear him talk on the subject reassures me that we are doing something of real, lasting worth.”
Now 66, Mr Farrugia has “retired”, but he continues to work for friends and studies painting at the School of Art in Valletta, optimistic about what the future holds for him in post-bus life.
“Once his 42-year-long career ends, however, the whole art will end too. He is the last of his kind,” Mr Malt says.
Delving deeper into the subject, Mr Malt believes “these works of art are intrinsic to the visual culture and identity of the island”.
Modernity and progress are necessary and healthy but, if approached with haste, there is a danger of “paving over those familiar cracks that lend charm and enduring individuality to a place”.
The trio are not yet sure what to do with the mid-length documentary – but it could well end up being shown at independent film festivals.
The bowing out of the vintage buses was also covered by the BBC, which described them as the “very definition of quirk” adding it will be sad to see “all this colour drain from the island”.