SIMSHAR. Malta, 2014. Starring Lofti Adbelli, Jimi Busuttil, Sekouba Doucoure, Chrysander Agius, Adrian Farrugia. Clare Agius, Mark Mifsud. Directed by Rebecca Cremona. 101 minutes. Rated M (Mature themes and coarse language)
It is not often that we see a film from Malta. Many western films have sequences made there but not one that is made by the Maltese themselves. This is a topical story, a story of an island in the middle of the Mediterranean, on the route from Libya to Italy, to the not-so-distant island of Lampedusa. It is a story of refugees from Africa as well is a story of families and fishermen from Malta itself. Simshar is the name of a boat.
On the one hand, the film is principally about the Maltese themselves, their fishing livelihood, the impositions of bureaucracy, the challenges to fishermen to bypass the impositions, the role of the fishermen and their families, the work of doctors who are called on to help on the refugee ships, the role of the police and authorities.
The film introduces three younger middle-aged men who are friends. The principal friend is Simon, who works tuna fishing on the Simshar with his father (the man playing the father, Jimi Busuttil, is not a professional actor but an actual fishermen), has a loving wife and a mischievous young son, Theo. (Theo with his friends, sometimes dressed as altar boys ringing the church bells, is not above testing out whether a cat has nine lives and throwing it over the belltower.) Simon is visited by an officious bureaucrat, threatened about his catch, refrigeration, regulations and limitations – but decides to go out with his father and with Theo, going south beyond the boundaries towards Libya.
John is a police official, married and friends with Simon’s family. We see him in action when a refugee ship is caught in international disputes between Italy and Malta, sailing back and forth on the Mediterranean, in discussions with the captain and crew, and in discussions with Alex who comes as a doctor inspecting the health of the refugees and involved in the search and rescue helicopter operation.
Alex is a married, a doctor, going on to the refugee ship, examining a range of passengers including a pregnant woman whose husband has died but who does not want to go ashore because she is being supported by her brother who is not allowed to leave the boat. There is also a man suffering from dementia. The audience sees many sequences of the people on the boat, sitting listlessly, with hopes of getting ashore and refuge, clambering when there is an opportunity to leave the boat. There is also an African woman refugee who serves as a translator for Alex and who challenges him to behave more compassionately towards the refugees.
This means that there is a great deal in the plot to reveal something about Malta and the situation of so many refugees crossing the Mediterranean and drowning.
But the climax of the film is the focus on Simon, his father and his son, going beyond where people are expecting them to be, encountering difficulties, especially the disregard by a Libyan vessel captain who does not want to be caught up in rescuing people at sea. What makes this part of the film particularly moving is that on the boat with the family is an African man who is working in Malta, a hard-working and diligent man, who tries his best in the face of impending loss at sea.
The film was co-written and directed by Rebecca Cremona who has an eye for filming the islands and the seascapes beautifully and who brings a sensitive awareness of the complexity of situations for Malta itself at this time as well as for the local protagonists and their stories. Malta's nomination for Foreign Language Oscars.
Released October 1st 2015.
Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.