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SUNDANCE 2021 World Cinema Dramatic Competition

Alex Camilleri • Director of Luzzu

“For Malta to be itself, I chose locations that stayed away from the ‘picture postcard’ views of the island”

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- We talked to the Maltese director on the occasion of the premiere of his first feature at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival

Alex Camilleri • Director of Luzzu

Maltese director Alex Camilleri’s first feature, Luzzu [+see also:
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interview: Alex Camilleri
film profile
]
, premiered in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition of the recent Sundance Film Festival. In his social drama, he shows a side of Malta that is a world apart from its traditional, tourist-orientated vistas. Choosing non-professional actors to embody the main protagonists added a particular authenticity to his story, in which a young fisherman is confronted with a life-changing decision that will affect the fate of his family. Camilleri told us about the situation for filmmakers on Malta and his concept for the film.

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Cineuropa: What is the infrastructure for filmmaking like on Malta?
Alex Camilleri: It depends on what kind of filmmaking you are talking about. From international productions like Das Boot to Hollywood blockbusters like Jurassic World: Dominion, if you have millions of dollars – or hundreds of millions, even – Malta has much to offer you in return. But our country's overt emphasis on foreign production often seems to be at the direct expense of native, independent cinema. Aside from the disparity in financial incentives that favour foreign shows with larger budgets, there has been underinvestment in building a local film sector from the ground up.

Without film schools, mentorship or many independent cinemas on the island, the environment for birthing new filmmakers is difficult. The national budget does not meet the needs for sustainable filmmaking on the island. Compare the Malta Film Fund’s budget of €600,000 for a country with a population of 514,564 with Iceland’s Film Fund budget of €6.5 million for a population of 364,100.

You chose a non-professional actor to embody your main protagonist. Is he the only one? And how did you cast for the movie?
Jesmark Scicluna
, who plays the lead in the film, is a real fisherman who inspired the character, also named Jesmark. This was the case, too, with David Scicluna – Jesmark’s real-life cousin and sometimes fishing partner – who plays David. Aside from the main cast, the film is full of non-actors. Many fishermen from Jesmark and David’s community appear in highly memorable moments of the film, such as when they receive a priest’s traditional blessing aboard their boats, or gather to tell stories of the “old days”. We shot such scenes more or less like a documentary: the authenticity radiating from these grizzled men is so compelling – it injects the film with a sense of life that breaks through the edges of the frame.

The casting process for our two leads was unusually demanding. Compounding the ordinary challenges of finding non-actors was the fact that I needed young fishermen; today, the average Maltese fisherman is over 50 years old. In Għar Lapsi, a tiny fishing hamlet in the south, we found Jesmark and David. With little time for formalities, I asked if we could all go out on David’s boat together. Once at sea, I brought out my small camcorder and asked the fishermen to improvise a short scene: as soon as they began riffing off each other, it seemed like the whole film clicked into place!

What did you like about working with non-professional actors?
While I had a very carefully written script, I never showed it to Jesmark or David. Instead, I would describe a scenario, give each character a goal and allow them to improvise the dialogue. Amazing discoveries came from these improvs; sometimes, Jesmark and David would also guide me to an emotion I had not anticipated. They knew I wanted everything to be true to reality and helped me stick to this. They helped me stamp out the bullshit from this film. And I think the audience can sense this: even if they know nothing about Malta or fishing, the thoroughness of the reality we portray is compelling right from the very first frame.

You use a lot of a handheld camera aesthetics. Why was this the best technique for the film, and what was your visual concept as a whole?
During pre-production, my cinematographer, Léo Lefèvre, and I studied a range of films to inform our approach to Luzzu. Our chief principle was to make a film that didn’t feel like a film, but instead like real life unfolding before us. We had anticipated combining tripod and handheld camera, although in the end, we probably went handheld more than what was initially expected. It’s important that once you get on set, you respond to your actors and find the right way to photograph them. In our case, Jesmark’s body language seemed to respond better when the camera was on Léo’s shoulder.

How important is it for you to have made a film that is clearly set in Malta?
At the very core of this project was the simple, but still rare, idea that Malta should play itself. Malta is constantly disguising itself at the whim of foreign productions, standing in for any location but itself. In certain ways, we’ve even become accustomed to looking at our own country through the eyes of how others perceive the island, and this mindset is limiting, to say the least. What about the beauty of our history, language and culture?

From the outset on Luzzu, it was imperative that Malta would play itself, that the cast and crew would be almost entirely local, and that we would use the Maltese language. Of course, these choices had an ethical component, but they also seized on such a rich creative opportunity: the chance to tell a story about a place and people that had had virtually no representation on a major stage like the Sundance Film Festival.

For Malta to be itself, I chose locations that stayed away from the “picture postcard” views of the island. We shot in places that were intentionally difficult to control, with traffic or construction, because that kind of chaos is true to Malta, just as true as its picturesque sides. I was determined not to sand off the rough edges.

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