“What’s this?” asks the gruff customs officer as he rummages through a brown leather satchel.
The traveller, beads of sweat glistening on his face, tells him that the circular piece of plastic the officer has taken out of his bag is a Frisbee. The official remains perplexed by the object. Gesturing to his co-worker, Frisbee still in hand, he seeks further clarification.
“It’s an American game. Baseball,” explains his colleague. And at this the customs official is satisfied, leaving the passenger free to board his flight.
Taken from the Oscar-winning Midnight Express, this exchange unfolds between Brad Davis as Billy Hayes and two Maltese actors, Joe Zammit Cordina and George Portelli, both of whom play nameless customs officers in this airport scene.
For most Maltese people, this is probably one of the most notorious moments in cinema and perhaps remains within the national consciousness due mainly to its sheer incongruity: not only are these Maltese actors speaking their own language in a big-budget foreign feature film that doesn’t have any subtitles, but according to the logic of the narrative, they are meant to be speaking Turkish.
Much has been written elsewhere about the representation of the Turkish people in Midnight Express. There’s no use adding to the debate. But an element of on-location shooting that is often neglected can serve a variety of functions when incorporated into a film’s text.
In relation to Midnight Express, Joe Zammit Cordina was one of Malta’s first casting agents for film and television.
“We’re not just talking about local film and TV,” says his nephew Henry Zammit Cordina, of Ħbieb and Għedewwa fame. “In the 1960s and 1970s, there were many foreign productions that used Malta as a location, and my uncle was the obvious choice when it came to casting, because he was the only one on the island who provided this service.”
The actor, who passed away in 2004, was integral to the casting process on Midnight Express through Malta Talent Artistes.
While Sir Alan Parker maintains that he chose every extra individually, filtering hundreds of Polaroids of applicants, it was Mr Zammit Cordina who helped secure many of the individuals in the film. Many of the extras cast were from the Valletta area.
Besides assisting in the casting process, Mr Zammit Cordina was an actor in his own right. Any Maltese cineaste will recall his Frisbee scene. According to his nephew, Mr Zammit Cordina was originally meant to say his lines in Turkish.
“He spent a long time memorising his lines. He spent 12 hours on set waiting for his scene to be filmed. Before they started to shoot, my uncle blanked out completely and couldn’t remember his lines.”
Curiously, his nephew adds, years later Mr Zammit Cordina could recite his lines in Turkish as they were meant to have been.
“But at that moment he blanked, and Alan Parker said, ‘Don’t worry Joe. Just say it in Maltese. No one will understand anyway.’ ”
Luckily there are some of us who do, and for the Maltese out there, this scene provides much light relief in a dark film.
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