Simshar, a Maltese drama film which released on the 27th of April, 2014 showcases two parallel plotlines occurring simultaneously, which are brought closer with the common theme of the mortal hazards of international migration. This film is not only a debut of the director, Rebecca Cremona, but the first Maltese film to be made. On one hand, we see a Maltese fisherman named Simon (Lofti Abdelli) and his family, to whom the ship ‘Simshar’ belongs. On the other hand, we see a Turkish vessel with African migrants on board, travelling to Italy. Mark Misfud plays Alex, a medic on the Turkish vessel, whose interactions with Makeda (Laura Kpegli) shapes the way he views their current predicament. The film throws light on a personal story of a fisherman’s family, in the backdrop of several others who are in a situation to face the same fate, anytime. As is mentioned in the opening of the film, it is indeed inspired by true events.
The opening scene almost instantaneously introduces the audience to the main setting of the entire film, the principal backdrop against which all the events and their consequences unfold. We see a vast expanse of the deep azure hued Mediterranean sea, bordered by rocks on the far end, a cluster of birds flying across a clear blue sky; altogether a perfect scenic vista. Yet we see a helicopter flying above, appearing to be on an urgent mission on the Mediterranean. In the next scene, we are introduced to Simon and his father Karmenu (Jimi Busuttil), on their ship Simshar. In another scene, we a see a crowd of protesters holding up banners and visibly displaying their anger on the steady influx of refugees into their land. The refugees arriving in large numbers were clearly not welcome by the local inhabitants.
The Turkish merchant vessel carrying the African migrants (possibly Eritrean), as the captain decided to rescue the boat people from their precarious journey, is left stranded on the Mediterranean. Refugees in danger on the sea must be transferred to the nearest shipping port, which is Lampedusa, not Italy. International bureaucratic indecision about what is to be done with the vessel carrying the rescued boat people provides the impetus to the plot, which unravels through the course of the movie. Bonds of friendship are formed and un-formed, legal procedure comes face to face with pure human empathy, and the standpoint the boat-wrecked urges the audience to rethink any and every preconceived notion that existed in their minds prior to this spectacle.
News of the plight of this vessel is all over the Maltese television channels. It is shown that Simon and his family are aware of the prevalent scenario on sea. However, this does not deter Simon’s plan of pushing the boundaries on Simshar and going far beyond into the Mediterranean. Compelled by his unsatisfactory living conditions and repeated quarrels with the fishing authority, Simon is determined to finally take a step to break away from his life’s miseries. Thus Simon, along with his father, his elder son Theo (Adrian Farrugia) and a Malian immigrant called Moussa (Sékouba Doucouré) set out sail on Simshar, expecting to come back with greater returns. By now, one already has their heart strings attached to Theo, and notices a suspicion built on religious differences.
The climax of Simon’s story is recorded in history as the Simshar tragedy. Cremona, when she set out to make her first film, deeply investigated this issue and had the chance of meeting the real life Simon as well. In a detailed interview with Carlos Aguilar, which was published on IndieWire, Cremona says,
“He really wanted to talk so I kept coming back to talk to him for about a week literally spending hours and hours talking everyday. We were even making Christmas pastries together. He really needed someone to talk to.”
That one particular voyage on the Mediterranean completely determined the direction of his life; perhaps, made him directionless. Interacting with Simon over a long period of time helped Cremona gain perspective on the work she was intending to venture upon. Much to her disbelief, Cremona also discovered the anomaly between the extensive, so-called authentic news coverage, and the nature of havoc that occurs in actuality.
“It was amazing that you were out there in the sea for 7 days and nobody saw you even though there is a lot of traffic in the Mediterranean Sea,” Cremona remarked.
“What makes you think nobody saw us?” asks Simon.
“What do you mean?” she asks.
“People saw us they just didn’t pick us up,” replied Simon.
Cremona discovered that people stranded on sea were not reached out to by boatmen or cargo ships for a host of reasons, like going against the instructions of the insurance companies, running the risk of getting caught by the police for smuggling, and so forth.
Simshar, the name of the movie as well as the ship, is derived from a union of the names Simon and his wife, Sharin (Clare Agius). This is a custom in Malta, to name boats and houses combining the names of the couple who owns them, explains Cremona in the same interview. This was one of the three reasons why she chose this title for her film. The other two being: one, Cremona uses the space of a ship (and a vessel in the parallel plotline) for the trajectory of her characters, as human value isn’t the same for all, and it definitely reduces for the ones on a boat. Secondly, she intended to portray “how Malta is a combination of things.” Thus, this was yet another bold task Cremona undertook: of placing Maltese culture on the global map of the film industry.
The quotidian life of the Maltese has been portrayed in a way that even a non-Maltese audience will find areas they can connect with. The gay, free-spirited football match between Theo and his friends in which Alex joins towards the end, Theo getting a leeway with his father for childhood crimes, Sharin and her younger son racing on the streets of Malta recounting Simon and her youth – all these make us comfortable with the ‘Sim-Shar’ family and we make it our very own. A certain church festival was shown towards the end, a band marching down the street on this occasion, extravagant fireworks and fun games with the crowd in an entirely festive mood. On this note I recall an amused exclamation made by one of my friends in the group, whose name too is co-incidentally Simon, with whom I had gone to watch the movie. “On the plus side, this is the first time I have heard the Maltese language for almost two hours!” (Why one needs a “plus side” is something to be realized after watching the climax, till the very end.) Cremona had something similar in mind during the making of the film, “There needed to be sufficient information there for people to find this place recognizable enough to relate to, but it also needed to be unique enough to be true to its particularities.”
This objective was suitably complemented by the excellent cinematography of the film. Be it the majestic or lethal Mediterranean, the festival in all its mirth and colours, or capturing the expressions of the characters, it was well carried out. Each frame seemed to convey the mood of that particular scene. The actors too, convincingly fit their part. The music added the necessary element of suspense which is associated with a journey whose sails are tied to the adverse elements of fate. This film was a first of its kind, as all the films shot in Malta belong to Hollywood. This was the first Maltese film, with a storyline around Malta, and various heads of department in the film making were Maltese too. The refugees shown in the film are refugees in real life, adding an element of authenticity in the proceedings of the films. The actor playing Karmenu is an actual fisherman. Cremona described it as “a national effort.”
The Maltese debut has set a benchmark of its own: it was selected for entry to the nomination list of the 87th Academy Awards under the Best Foreign Language category. It was screened in the International Film Festival Mannheim-Heidelberg (IFFMH) on the 19th, 21st and 23rd of October, 2015 in Mannheim and on the 20th, 22nd, and 24th of October, 2015 in Heidelberg. I had watched the screening in Heidelberg on the 24th, and vividly recall coming out of the hall thoroughly shaken. In fact, the film kept the audience on their seat edges throughout its reel time. There was a sense of mixed anxiety, anguish, and agony that couldn’t, rather needn’t be expressed in syllables. Simshar was awarded the Special Achievement Award 2015 at the IFFMH. The film has had 11 wins and 2 nominations until now, according to IMDb, some of the wins being Best Director in the Cyprus International Film Festival (2015); won 4 awards at the Peloponnesian International Film Festival (Bridges, 2015), among them Clare Agius secured Best Actress, and Ruben Zahra Best Music Score; Best Film second place in the Zanzibar International Film Festival (2015).
The politically gripping film was thus, not only praised as the Maltese debut but also for remaining indifferent on the part of passing any moral judgment. It indeed does not. It portrays the various standpoints of the different groups shown in the movie, puts it as accurately as possible before the audience, and it is for us to form an opinion. However, Simshar went one step ahead. Not only does it not favour any side over the other, it somehow makes us discard the thought of wanting to choose any political side. Especially the ending, it will make you want to choose humanity. Emotional bonds, empathy, and kindness. No matter which part of the world a person is coming from, there are certain universal experiences, thereby adding equal value to each human life.
[For information regarding the next screening of the film, check out their page on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/SimsharTheFilm/]
- Carlos Aguilar, “Reclaiming Cinema: Dir. Rebecca Cremona on Her Groundbreaking Debut ‘Simshar’”, IndieWire 16 Dec. 2014.
- Internationales Filmfestival Mannheim-Heidelberg, “Archiv: PREISTRÄGER”, 2015 (16/03/2017) http://www.iffmh.de/en/the-festival/archiv/
- IMDb, “Simshar (2014)”, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2521700/
- IMDb, “Simshar (2014) Awards”, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2521700/awards?ref_=tt_awd
[Adrija is an intern at Mahanirban Calcutta Research Group. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The images used in this article are screen grabs from the film.]