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All hands on deck for Simshar

Young director Rebecca Cremona is on a mission to put Malta on the international movie map with her upcoming film Simshar. But she is at pains not to have it called a documentary, she tells Bertrand Borg.

Rebecca Cremona had barely finished uploading a teaser trailer for her upcoming film Simshar when variations of the same comment started coming in: looks great, but is it truly what happened?

I think it’s extremely important to have a Maltese stamp. That doesn’t mean it has to be inaccessible

Her answer was succinct. “No. But it’s not meant to be.” The 2008 Simshar tragedy, in which four people died in a fishing boat explosion, was only part of Ms Cremona’s cinematic vision.

Anyone expecting to see a documentary about the Simshar incident is barking up the wrong tree, she said.

“The film is inspired by true events, but we’ve invented some characters and removed others – not because we don’t care about them, but because we had to make it work dramatically.”

The story, Ms Cremona explained, runs on three parallel tracks. The traditional Simshar story as most people know it is the first. Life on land, with Simon Bugeja’s wife Sharin raising a family as immigration concerns and tension among fishermen start to bubble, is the second. Third, a Maltese doctor finds himself on board a migrant vessel, caring for a pregnant woman.

All throughout, the sounds of Maltese will blend with English dialogue. And the decision to go bilingual was intentional.

“I think it’s extremely important to have a Maltese stamp. That doesn’t mean it has to be inaccess-ible,” Ms Cremona argued. “Take Monsoon Wedding, which is half in Hindi and half in English: it mirrors the way a middle-class Indian family speaks, but it’s about a topic everyone can relate to.”

Filming of the Simshar scenes was completed last month at Mediterranean Film Studios, and saw Ms Cremona and her crew struggle to film the sea-bound protagonists as they floated on a raft.

“It was sheer hell to light and film at first. The raft would just drift and spin around. Then we worked out a way of securing the raft without it showing underwater, and things got a little easier.”

Many have labelled Simshar the first Maltese film to be released internationally. But Ms Cremona is keen to set the record straight.

“Cecil Satariano’s Katarin was screened in some UK theatres in the 1970s. So, although Simshar might be the first to be intentionally released internationally, it won’t be the first, full stop.”

Ms Cremona, who has already won a Directors Guild of America Jury Prize for her period short Magdalene, is not coy about voicing her ambition.

“We want Simshar to do the festival run across the world. It’s an independent film with mainstream appeal, and hopefully it will do well.”

But first it will have to be completed, and film coffers need recharging before more filming.

“Some people think this is a multi-million-euro production in which money isn’t any problem. But the truth is that a lot of it is down to friends, family and sponsors – from the Godwin’s Garage cherry pickers to Movie People cameras, to my mother feeding the crew three times a day.”

Funding opportunities were harder to come by in the current economic climate, she said. “We had private investment fall through in 2009. The Malta Film Fund grants have helped, but we’re still behind on our funding targets. We’re now trying to crowd-source €50,000 from individuals through Indiegogo – there’s a link to that on the Simshar Facebook page.”

Simshar’s first teaser trailer – put together to attract investors – was released a couple of years ago. People might be wondering why it is taking so long.

“Many people don’t understand why it takes so long to create a film. But that’s perhaps part of the reason why nobody has done anything on this scale locally before.

“I first met Simon Bugeja six months after the Simshar tragedy, at Christmas 2008. And on average, it takes between four and seven years for a director to create their first feature film. So the film’s actually on time.”

Even so, the film’s completion date will have little impact on its eventual release date, Ms Cremona said. “A film’s virginity is very important – you’ve got to release it in sync with the festival run to have any chance of making an impact.”

The headstrong director is adamant that Simshar’s eventual international release be coupled with a Maltese premiere. “The themes are universal, but the film, its makers and its context are Malta through and through. And I think that’s something to be celebrated.”

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