With a scarcity of local productions and the pedigree of an award-winning debut at the Sundance Film Festival, Luzzu was an obvious selection as the Maltese submission for the Best International Feature of Oscar. For writer-director Alex Camilleri, however, the film – about a fisherman struggling to provide for his family – has exceeded his modest expectations. As this authentic drama continues its journey throughout cinemas around the world, Awards Radar caught up with Camilleri to discuss the neorealist ethos behind the filmmaking.
Shane Slater: You’re Maltese-American and you’ve worked on some US films before. What led you to making your feature debut in Malta and telling this particular story?
Alex Camilleri: Well, my film is somewhat a lifetime in the making. I always wanted to make films in Malta from the earliest point that I knew I wanted to make films. My parents emigrated from Malta, just before I was born. So I grew up in the States, but always had a foot in two worlds, so to speak. We traveled back to Malta frequently. And my parents, in their own way, tried to keep our heritage alive. And so it was a place that I loved and I felt connected to. The faces, the landscape was always populating my dreams and my aspirations to tell stories.
As I got older and discovered world cinema, I would fall in love with different parts of the world that I’d never been, through the filmmakers and the characters. Somehow, I would come to understand something about a country that I otherwise might not have ever traveled to or experienced. And all this time, I expected to find Maltese films. But it never seemed to happen. I searched and searched, and there just really wasn’t anything out there. So that kind of confirmed what I needed to do, which was to marry my love of this kind of filmmaking with my love of Malta.
SS: Did you have a lot of knowledge about the fishing industry beforehand, or did that require a lot of research?
AC: I had never been fishing in my life before starting this film. So, it was not the most natural subject matter, also because I get seasick quite easily. But I was fascinated by traditional fishing in Malta, because it is somehow synonymous with the identity of the Maltese islands. The luzzu itself is a really an icon of the Maltese culture. And yet, it seems so little is actually known about the Maltese fishermen. They’re always somehow in view and yet, behind a wall, so to speak.
So I was interested in just asking questions. I started talking to fishermen. And immediately, I realized that I was an outsider to their world in so many ways but there was something really deep that connected us. I recognized in my family their own stories of immigration mirrored what was happening in the families of many fishermen. Because they were the last generation carrying on this traditional way of life, they were reckoning with the fact that the lives of their children would have to be different and that somehow the family’s identity would have to change. And you can’t move forward without leaving something behind.
I witnessed that in my own upbringing. I saw my parents wrestle with the parts of their past they would have to let go of in order for their children to thrive in a new context. A lot of families have to deal with this and my own personal experience with it gave me an emotional foothold into the stories of many of the fishermen that I was meeting. So that gave me a kind of a courage that I had some license over this story. And then at that point, I really just needed to strengthen my stomach and learn everything I could about fishing.
SS: How did Jesmark Scicluna get involved and how biographical is this story?
AC: Thank you for for mentioning Jesmark. He’s an amazing person, an inspiration to me. He is a real fisherman who was cast for this role specifically. I spent many months casting and I knew from the beginning that I have to use real fishermen. One reason is purely practical. It would be much easier to train a fisherman to be an actor than to train an actor to be a fisherman. But in another sense, this goes deeper. There’s a tradition in neorealist cinema of people kind of portraying versions of themselves. And I’m so moved by those stories specifically, because I think they go beyond fiction in this way that’s hard to describe. But the reality really just seems to burst through the screen.
I recognize an opportunity to bring that to Malta. Because Malta had almost zero cinematic output, we’ve never had any realism. And because it, on the other hand, is used as a kind of Hollywood backlot. Malta has been a shooting location for dozens of blockbuster films. Malta has been serving illusions to you and me and everyone all over the world to enjoy these Hollywood films. It has gotten to the point that even the Maltese view their own country through these illusions. The images that are fed back to them are not of their own making. So all the more reason to pierce that veil, and make a film as close to the bone as possible and let the reality speak for itself. And that just seems so correct for this kind of story.
It wasn’t easy. Fishermen do not have headshots. You can’t just look them up. I just literally spent months driving around the island with my casting director, who is a terrific partner in this. He’s the most in demand casting director on the island for any size of production. He loves Italian neorealism and completely understood my references. He’s also a part-time fisherman. His name is Edward Said, and he became a good friend over the course of making this film.
A lot of the time we spent was just trying to find these guys. It was also a challenge because I needed young fishermen. Jesmark and David – who’s the other main fisherman character – they’re between ages 25 and 40. But in reality, the average age of a fisherman is over 50. So because it’s kind of like a dying trade, there are not a lot of young guys. So we really had to look very hard.
To make a long story long, I was traveling back and forth between Malta and New York City on my last day, at the end of a few unsuccessful months, trying to cast literally on the last day. We heard a rumor about these two guys, Jesmark and David. We drove down to where we would find them. Thank God, we did find them. And normally, I would try to take things slow with any fishermen who I auditioned.
So the first day is just sort of making introductions and then you’d leave. And then you’d come back another day to see if they’re still interested. But I didn’t have that time. I was flying back to New York the next day. So I just asked them and there,”I’ve got a little camera with me. Can we do an audition?” And somehow, they said yes and the rest is history. I just asked them to improvise a little theme that I had in mind. And they were so good, both of them. In that moment, I knew I had a film.
SS: I was intrigued by the film’s portrayal of masculinity. Jesmark feels this pressure to be the strong, tough provider. The man of the house. But there’s something innately sensitive and gentle in his performance. Was that something you were particularly trying to amplify in this character?
AC: I’m glad you feel that way. I think it’s a big part of this story. That first day that I met Jesmark on my way back, when I was leaving I looked into the back of his car. And in the back of his car, it was filled with fishing equipment, which was a combination of spears, swordfish hooks. All this sharp and dangerous stuff, and a baby seat. And I think that was really interesting. I learned he had a baby daughter. And somehow that juxtaposition of a really delicate life in the middle of this world of men, and this dangerous world, was very interesting to me. Knowing that the real Jesmark was also a young father gave me a lot of inspiration for where to take the story.
That set up this journey that he goes on, which does kind of probe ideas of masculinity. Perhaps some that are universal and aspects of it are specific to the Mediterranean. I’m really moved by those tender scenes that you’ve commented on, because as we see Jesmark transform over the course of the story, he’s so filled with this fire and this notion of what it means to be a man. I think his transformation is really redefining what fatherhood means.
And in a sense, central to the theme of this film is how do you feed your child? At the beginning of the story it’s a very literal conception of that question. And as he tests the bounds of his identity, that question starts to mean different things. What do you feed your child? How do you nourish your child’s spirit and their mind? How does your identity transmit to them? And it took them on a course that has both inspiring but also tragic components. It really is a question of masculinity and fatherhood at the end of the day, but it does expand into a universal sense about how do we transform for the benefit of others?
SS: There are so many conflicting motives in the narrative. You have the preservation of traditions versus preservation of the natural resources, but there’s also a black market that could be potentially violent. How did you stay on course, and what was guiding your inspiration for the style of the film and the trajectory of the narrative?
AC: Well, the artistic tenets of neorealism were baked into the philosophy of this film. I almost hesitate to say artistic because I think in some ways, they’re tenets that arise out of necessity. You know, when Italy was ravaged by war and poverty and fascism, their response was to turn those so called weaknesses into strengths. Malta is a thriving economy in this moment. If you’re making a film in 2021, it’s different than in the post-war period.
And yet, this is a country without a lot of cinematic precedents and without a lot of the infrastructure. So we took courage from neorealism to just say that whatever we have is enough. Let’s not try to make a Hollywood film in Malta. Let’s just make something about ourselves. And believe me, we did not think that Sundance, an Oscar submission and being sold in 12 territories all over the world was in the cards. But nevertheless, when you make a film small, when you make a story small, I think it becomes bigger.
So we focused on being kind of true to Malta, using the language which has rarely ever been put on film. Showing the faces of the real people and just shooting on location, and avoiding those postcard money shots that all the Hollywood films tend to shoot over and over again. So that was kind of at the basis of the whole thing. That philosophy and other influences materialized. As the crew got deeper into it, we looked at references like the social realism of Ken Loach and the films of the Dardenne brothers. Andrea Arnold as well. We cobbled it together. Robert Bresson was a big influence for this film as well. As an island, you kind of have to look outward and import ideas and techniques. And whenever we were looking all over, we needed to match the circumstances to Malta.
SS: You mentioned being the Oscars submission and you’re the second film to be submitted from Malta. I remember interviewing Rebecca Cremona some years ago, and she was mentioning how she was one of the first films to benefit from the film fund. How has the industry progressed since then?
AC: It’s a difficult question. In some ways, I think that Malta continues to be a desirable location for foreign production. That is still its focus. And there are very competitive financial incentives to attract foreign production. But if you look at Rebecca’s film, which was made in 2014, and our film which was made in 2021, in those seven years, maybe one or two other films have been made. Meaning, local Maltese productions making use of that film fund that she was talking about, which we were also the beneficiaries of.
So I think what’s clear is that still, there are too few Maltese films being made. And we just need to see more. I think, speaking as an audience member, what motivated me to make the film was to see a film I had never seen before, in a very literal sense. And I want to be the first one buying movie tickets for more and more Maltese films. But three or four films in a decade is just not enough.
SS: Do you think all the attention surrounding this film will incentivize more local productions in Malta?
AC: The experience in releasing the film here is untapped demand. The outpouring of enthusiasm for this film has been really humbling. We’ve had a great experience releasing it and getting the feedback. I think we’re in our seventh week of release here and keep filling up showtimes. People are talking about the film. It means a lot to them to see their experiences reflected back to them, to hear their language on screen. That means a lot. And if it can create a natural market demand for more local film, I think that’s great. That’s not for me to say that it will happen. But maybe we can contribute to just whetting the appetite for more stories like this. But I don’t know unnecessarily if one film can change everything. It’s hard.
There’s a lot of structural challenges here in Malta. Nothing that I’ve seen so far gives me the kind of hope, despite our successes, that it magically unlocks anything. I’m making a second film in Malta and in some ways, I’m back to square one. The roads are not necessarily being paved in front of me. And so I don’t expect roads to be paved in front of other filmmakers, just because of what happened with this film. And I don’t know what it’s like in other countries, but that’s just kind of how I’m seeing it.
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity]
Luzzu is now playing in select theaters.