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Producers warn against backlash after Dwejra filming 'blunder'

The Producers' Creative Partnership, a local service company, has insisted that the Dwejra 'blunder' where a filming company disregarded MEPA regulations and used heavy machinery in order to clean up sand on this sensitive site should not lead to the stigmatisation of the film industry.

"It is no secret that MEPA is reputed in the film industry as not being the easiest of government bodies to work with. However one must respect that MEPA has a very important task of protecting the island's natural environment from the prospects of such isolated mismanaged incidents. For this reason certain conditions imposed by MEPA are warranted," the PCP said.

"But it is also important that every film is judged on its own merits. A film production must manage its locations in a professional manner. Trying to save monies by hiring a location manager who never before did the job, as clearly appears to be the case in this incident, is negligence by the production."

The PCP recalled that when Hallmark’s “Odyssey” filmed in Gozo 15 years ago it left a controversial permanent road built at Ta’ Cenc. But when it returned in 2002 for “Dinotopia” it filmed in Mtahleb and other sensitive locations without a single hitch - because the management teams on both productions were entirely different, despite being employed by the same Hallmark company.

The US feature “Cut Throat Island” filmed in 1994 with a large bunch of American and British location managers, some of whom were not qualified. The production, it said, left the island with a string of false promises and claims with councils and location owners.

"It has taken the industry a good decade to recover from the “Cut Throat Island stigma” and this was only with the help of successful productions as “The Count of Monte Cristo” which treated every location with the utmost care."

The partnership said that when a blunder occurred as that recently in Dwejra, it was easy to blame the entire industry. But in reality it was often the fault of only a few individuals, often simply the fault of the location manager.

"All local production service providers are urged to keep in mind that that they do not only represent the foreign producers but they also represent a film servicing industry which is still in its infancy and which can easily be tainted unfairly on this little island. Productions must manage themselves professionally and spend and save money in the right places."

The PCP said that in order to avoid a repeat of what happened at Dwejra, it was proposed that when MEPA in future issued filming permits, instead of instilling unreasonable and tougher rules on anyone applying for a permit to protect itself from another public controversy, a fairer and more intelligent strategy should be adopted.

"Besides considering the environmental impact, MEPA could evaluate the production team’s track record in Malta and it could inform itself of the experience of the location manager who is assigned to the site. Based on its findings it can assess whether the risk of breaking a regulation will be low or high and then it can determine a reasonable bank guarantee figure as well as whether onsite inspections should be sporadic or continuous.

"If MEPA opts to simply increase its bureaucracy for future permit applications, it will only deter film productions from coming to shoot on location in Malta. The economical impact can be disastrous for the industry.

"The authorities at MEPA, NGOs and local councils who are tempted to stigmatize the film industry based on the recent Gozo incident are urged to think once again. This is an isolated case and must be treated as such."

The sand strewn on the fossil-rich rocks at Dwejra is being removed manually, with brushes and spades, in a lengthy and meticulous exercise which Mepa says could have been avoided had permit conditions been followed.

Fire & Blood Productions, which filmed parts of the HBO series Game of Thrones at Dwejra, has blamed the subcontractor it hired for not adhering to established conditions in the clean-up process to remove sand it had strewn on the protected site.

In a briefing yesterday, the Malta Environment and Planning Authority said it would be making a case to withdraw part or all of the €15,000 bank guarantee imposed on the production company and it was not ruling out other measures of redress, depending on whether the site had been irreversibly damaged.

Residual damage was still being quantified but it was not looking bad, the director of environment, Martin Seychell said.

Planning director Chris Borg pointed out the production company’s failures included the fact that it did not inform Mepa when it began to lay the sand and did not place an impermeable plastic sheet, using mesh instead, which defeated the purpose.

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