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It’s not unusual to see Malta on screen. Much like the UK, it’s a popular filming location for Hollywood mega-pics, recently playing host to World War Z, Captain Phillips, and the HBO series Game of Thrones. Unlike Britain, however, Malta’s indigenous film industry is almost non-existent, and the country has never produced a film that has been distributed outside its borders.

This fact might have led Rebecca Cremona to choose a simpler career path. The Maltese native studied for her first degree at Warwick University, before moving to Pasadena to study an MA. While in the States, her short film, Magdalene won a DGA jury prize, and an honourable mention at the 2009 Student Emmys. With that momentum behind her, she could well have begun to carve out a career in Los Angeles, or London, or Paris. Instead she returned to Malta.

Around the same time as Rebecca was finishing her MA, events were unfolding off the coast of Malta that would change her life, as well as the lives of countless others.

The fishing vessel Simshar set out from harbour on the 7th July 2008. Skippered by veteran fisherman, Simon Bugeja, his crew of four included both his father, Karmenu, and his 11 year old son, Theo. All was going well until the early hours of July 11th, when an explosion tore through the ship. Everyone aboard made it into the water alive, but over the next few days, all but one succumbed to thirst and exhaustion.

Less than half a million people live on Malta, and many of them work in the fishing industry. Consequently, this particularly cruel tragedy, that affected three generations of the same family, had a big impact on the country’s psyche. It also had a big impact on Cremona, who instinctively knew the potential of the human drama.

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“It’s very complex,” the director explains, “because there was a lot written about the story, and there was a lot that was in the public domain. And there was a lot of speculation.”

That speculation had become something of a national pastime in the wake of the disaster. Initially the surviving crew member, Simon Bugeja, had been treated sympathetically, but as time passed, accusations flew, and sympathy turned to suspicion; with Bugeja accused of negligence. Charges were ultimately dropped, but the ordeal had consequences, and Bugeja and his wife separated for a short time in the aftermath.

It was shortly after that that Cremona first began exploring the possibility of bringing the story to the big screen. “It was in December of 2008, and the tragedy happened in July 2008, so it was still very, very fresh.”, Cremona recalls, “he went from being this tragic hero, to a suspect of manslaughter. Then I got him after everyone had left him, and I think he found it therapeutic to speak.” Even still, however, this immediacy presented some difficulties. Cremona recalls their first encounter with some measure of awkwardness, “it was not a very good time. I was only 24 at the time, so he must have thought, ‘who is this little girl, coming here, talking about this film, what is she thinking?”

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Making the Movie

Acquiring the rights was the first, tiny step in a process that would eventually take Cremona nearly six years. Her next task was to figure out a story.

Making real life events feel compelling when told on the big screen is difficult enough, but with Simshar the task was especially daunting. Because of the press coverage, the core audience were intimately familiar with the story, and likely held their own views on the events. Meanwhile, the film was also intended for markets where no one had ever heard the word ‘Simshar’. In reconciling these two disparate needs, Cremona tweaked the story, combining several characters – including two of the Simshar’s crew – and adding a sub-plot about immigration, and a boat full of refugees held off the coast of Lampedusa.

This task was relatively simple, however, when compared to the difficulties Cremona faced in actually shooting the film. The trail-blazing nature of the project meant that there was no track record to fall back on when it came to attracting financing, particularly financial assistance from the EU’s MEDIA film fund. “We need a precedent in order to be eligible” explains Cremona, “we don’t have that precedent”.

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Then there was the choice of lead actor. “because we didn’t have a big name director, and we don’t have a studio behind us, or international distribution, we needed a name that had some international recognition.” Cremona reveals, “Unfortunately, in Malta, there is no body yet who has a name that can carry that weight, which is why our leading man, who speaks Maltese, is actually a Tunisian actor.”

The real hurdle, however, was skills and infrastructure. Malta has built up a very good servicing industry, able to facilitate filming of movies of any scale, but there are key positions that were impossible to fill with indigenous crew. “We have people who have an extremely high skill set. Then we have certain gaps.” laments Cremona, “For example, we literally couldn’t get a focus puller on the island who was familiar with the camera. The only way we could get a focus puller was from France.”

Even the elements of the shoot that weren’t difficult to come by presented challenges. Malta has some of the largest water tanks in the world, and sits in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. But that didn’t mean things would be simple. “Water moves. People in water float. A raft made of polystyrene floats even more”, Cremona explains “Two of them were acting in a language which was not their own. One of them had just learned to swim the year before.”

The man who had just learned to swim was French actor, Sekouba Doucouré “it was a real challenge for me,” Doucouré recalls, “and it was during the winter, which was really, really hard. By night. So phsycially it was a real challenge, very difficult.”

In keeping with the spirit of the production, however, Doucouré took it in his stride, “It all helped me to be in the character, to be in the action. And you realise in this moment, how it would be”.

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This attitude, turning adversity into advantage, seems to have been a running theme throughout the production. Whether it was in lead actress Clare Aigus drawing on her family’s own experience of tragedy – her ten year old brother died when she was a child – to inform her performance, or Cremona persuading the country’s military to help the production by lending vehicles, including a helicopter. Indeed, the entire project could be seen as an expression of this notion, not only turning tragedy into art, but also into a whole industry.

The net result of the effort put in by the cast and crew was revealed at the end of April, when Simshar received its world premiere in Malta. Amongst the guests were Ambassadors from the US and Ireland, as well as the British High Commissioner, and the Maltese cabinet. Two days later the film opened, to a host of positive reviews, and record box office.

But for Cremona and co, the job is far from over. The next goal for Simshar is finding international distribution, and to do so she will be taking it on a tour of film festivals. Beyond that, Cremona is also keen to help build a proper film industry in her homeland. And in this she has allies, particularly so in Maltese film commissioner Englebert Grech.

“We need to build that culture [of film], and as a film commission, we are trying our best” Grech explains. And this effort isn’t simply limited to providing funding for movies, “We are getting the money in the next few months, to give the right training to our professionals, be it as producers – and scriptwriters, creative people, DoPs. We need these kind of people.”

Cremona describes the current efforts as “a beautiful thing”, and “a lot of responsibility on both ends”, and no doubt will be working to make this happen. And as for her experience of making Simshar?

“There is a very fine line between stupidity and courage,” she confides, “and let me assure you that we were walking the tightrope from start to finish.”

Simshar is at cinemas in Malta right now. If that’s too far to travel, look out for it playing at a film festival near you in the coming months.

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