Fuel for the fire
Director: Pierre Ellul
Starring: Dom Mintoff, Lino Spiteri and Joe Psaila Savona
67 mins; Cert U; Falkun Films
Pierre Ellul’s Dear Dom is the eagerly-anticipated documentary about controversial ex-prime minister Dom Mintoff, who dominated Maltese politics from the 1950s to the 1980s.
Given the divisive nature of his subject, Ellul succeeds in presenting events factually.
Using never-seen-before arch-ive footage of Mintoff and having access to certain documents of import, Ellul meticulously constructs a portrait of a man who fought hard to get what he wanted no matter who got in his way or who he allied himself with. A man who, as the tagline so succinctly puts it “fought for change and then fought against it”.
The documentary unfolds in the form of a letter, with a sombre narration by Mark Grima as we are introduced to post-war Malta; Mintoff’s split with then Labour leader Paul Boffa; the quarrel with Britain and the battles with the Church; Mintoff’s return to power in the 1970s; his relentless pursuit of overseas investment; his questionable foreign alliances and ill-advised economic policies, until his final ‘traitorous’ act which led to the Labour party losing government after only 22 months in power following the 1996 election.
In his choice of what to depict – and given Mintoff’s 50-plus years in politics, the choice must have been tough – Ellul features the erstwhile Labour leader’s earlier promising achievements and later less successful policies which divided the nation, a division which still exists today.
If time or other constraints prevented Ellul from tackling the human side of the man, Mintoff’s persona permeates through-out, a reminder of the subject’s larger-than-life personality.
The documentary features a disparate group of people who talk about Mintoff, including former Labour minister Lino Spiteri, who provides a determined defence of Mintoff, and former Nationalist MP and parliament-ary secretary Joe Psaila Savona who comments on the infamous doctor’s strike.
A couple of non-politicos also feature, proffering blatantly different points of view of the man, as can well be expected.
The pace never lets up, and the narrative unfolds briskly and economically. Some events are illustrated by powerful animation sequences, and underscored by a series of pointed musical tracks, including some evocative music improvised by pianist Rosetta De Battista especially for the film.
My only quibble is that in order to enforce certain arguments, there is at points a lapse in the chronology of events which may lead to slight confusion.
Also, Ellul assumes that his audience are well-versed with the era he covers, which may leave non-Maltese audiences with many blanks to fill (although, as he says in his interview on the opposite page, this is something he intends to address).
Ellul claims that his starting point was his desire to understand the emotions that Mintoff triggers in people, and if his intention was to provoke a visceral reaction in his viewers, then he is totally successful.
That the events portrayed here have not been forgotten is obvious; what the documentary brings forth are vivid and at times unwelcome memories of living through those days and a stark reminder of the sense of uncertainty that prevailed for such a long time before Mintoff’s resignation in 1984.
Needless to say, given the still polarised nature of the country, many will disagree with me; and whether audiences can look back at events objectively, as Ellul clearly wishes, is another matter.
It is undeniably a well-produced and significant piece of film-making, being the first film to document the events that led to the turbulent 1980s and audiences of all ages and political leanings should seek it out.
At the very least, it will continue to fuel the debate about Mintoff that will certainly not die down for a long time to come.