Having lived in Marsascala between 2015 and 2020 and seeing the sleepy-but-bustling former fishing village once again become a target for suffocating over-development, I’ve decided to look back on some of my impressions and memories of the town, partly motivated by simple nostalgia, partly by an urge to help myself understand just why the authorities and the business class so often make it a point to single out Marsascala in their ongoing drive towards uniform devastation.This is the third blog post in an erstwhile series.
So we had a sea view.
Sullied at the edges of your peripheral vision by clumsily placed solar panels, sure, but it was there. It greeted you each morning and provided a balm in the evening during summer – then, in all of the expected ways – and during winter it allowed for a showcase of nature’s fury as the waves crashed in violent foam over the promenade.
It remains the one undeniable perk we both miss very much now that we’ve relocated from Marsascala to Rabat a year ago. No longer being able to wake up and smell the sea, taking in its blue-on-blue hue, can’t be brushed off so easily. You can only be stoic about so much.
Thinking back on this, it’s the Marsascala dawn that really stands out in the memory. The sea view is the sea view, yes, but it really comes into its own in the morning, when it allows you to greet the day with a particular sense of accessible, graspable majesty. You visualise the opposite bay like a slowly-loading act of creation: the sight of the water hits you first, with the promenade and the dotted boats appearing gradually, replotting themselves into the scenery. A wide blue expanse, from eyeline to sublime horizon, would have its meditative perks too, of course.
But there’s something charming in the way the sea is stoppered by the twist of the promenade, at least viewed from our former spot in Zonqor. (One of my smallest – and so, most precious – delights was spotting buses work their way across the promenade road from our terrace. A miniature reminder of a system that somehow, with all its faults, still manages to work. To serve people.)
You realise it all the more when you actually go down and see for yourself – when you experience the promenade as a participant, not just a mere spectator. The slippy-slide of the moss-strewn walk down by what is a de facto boat yard… a brief shot of pure vernacular beauty, sadly interrupted too soon by the parked cars that insist on crowding you before you’re allowed to emerge to the main walk, facing the church.
But for a while, it’s like you’re transported into a scene redolent of the early 20th century: the promise of an effortlessly charming Mediterranean village fulfilled. Old houses fronted by streetlamp-flanked benches, for lovers to share pizza and beer purchased from very close by. Room for families to spread out a formica table and benches for a multi-generational gathering of card games and barbecues. And despite the independent flurry of boats that frame and flank it all, room enough for an old man with a bad leg to dull his pain with diligent exercise – a refreshing dip into the sea, after which he dries himself off seated upright by the wall, before working up the strength to head back home.
Regular sights for me, but morning and evening. But it all goes by in a few seconds: a pocket of fantasy, a near-literal blink of an eye. Because after that, you’re either back to the sea-view blocks by the road, where you’ll get to enjoy the more traditional pleasures of a rocky beach which will – eventually – be joined by the Zonqor fields we fought very hard to retain back in 2015. Or you’re more likely to head about your business in the opposite direction, marching your way to the promenade and its string of shops and restaurants, along with a nail technician and real estate agents’ office (or two. Pretty sure there were at least two).
This is where the true ‘life’ of Marsascala could be said to begin: the trigger of the daily churn of people and business. In the absence of a concentrated square, we get a stretched out one: the promenade serves as a gathering point for people and a stopping point for fruit & veg trucks, at least until it sheds the skin of a village square and becomes the ‘leisure’ promenade expected by convention.
The transition point for this is the small area by the traffic lights which lead to the bus terminus – or more accurately, to the recently-refurbished, multi-generational family restaurant Grabiel – where the barriers to the sea are briefly opened up; a place that serves as a small parking space and which in winter leaves plenty of leeway for flooding – you’re often forced so skip over and otherwise creatively manouevre through large puddles of pooled and brackish sea water.
From there forward, the communal spirit becomes more solitary and leisurely. You grab an ice cream and march forward towards St Thomas Bay and its environs; an area of true sublime beauty very much compatible with tourist postcards. But it also exists in the shadow of a fallen ruin: the old Jerma Palace Hotel, now a crumbling reminder of mismanagement and institutional dithering, but also a pro-active breeding ground for some of the island’s more interesting street art, and the location for many a low-budget music video.
Its neighbour, the St Thomas Tower, taps into a similar vein of neglect and decadence: it’s thankfully no longer a pizzeria, but any historical glory it may boast feels diminished by its flaking exterior, and its proximity to the far more imposing Jerma ruin. Still, both structures are also notable for their cat colonies, often seen crossing indistriminately from one side of the street to the other, making this cat lover’s heart skip a beat each time.
If our walk from Zonqor is undertaken during the evening, this is the point at which we often begin to turn back home. That, or we extend our walk past St Thomas Bay itself – to overlook the beach during magic hour and forgive this island and its people its many shortcomings.
Having lived in Marsascala between 2015 and 2020 and seeing the sleepy-but-bustling former fishing village once again become a target for suffocating over-development, I’ve decided to look back on some of my impressions and memories of the town, partly motivated by simple nostalgia, partly by an urge to help myself understand just why the authorities and the business class so often make it a point to single out Marsascala in their ongoing drive towards uniform devastation. This is the second blog post in this erstwhile series.
Marsascala always struck me as one of the few villages or towns in Malta whose borders are actively separated by clear distances.
Most of Malta’s localities exist on parallel and intersecting lines – like the twin cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma in China Mieville’s fantasy-noir novel The City and the City. Plant yourself at any border on the island and you’ll likely find yourself facing or tailing a couple more. Not so with Marsascala.
The road that extends from its closest Southern cousin of Zabbar feels like a proper ‘highway’ between one town, city, village and the next. Neither is it terribly feasible to walk to nearby villages through its other end – a one-hour trek to its more decorated fishing village cousin of Marsaxlokk is certainly beautiful in the right conditions, but impractical in others; opting to walk to the equidistant Zejtun is neither a pretty nor safe proposition.
And trudging through the ‘pedestrian’ highway to Zabbar (and nearby Birgu) would be pointless – it’s a strip of land designed exclusively for cars, and all the ramblers would get out of it would be inhaled fumes.
But this isolation equals neither boredom nor tranquility, much as I sometimes wished that to be the case. Marsascala is ‘bustling’ in various senses of that loaded word. A fishing village turned summer-house location for local families turned expat haven turned half-hearted tourist spot.
A few decent restaurants have popped up in recent years, but the provision of overall services remains on the sketchy side. No need to pine for the mercilessly ‘sleek’ counterparts of Sliema and St Julian’s – which would be uncomfortable for a host of related or vaguely-related reasons – but moving to the more centralised and quieter area of Rabat has quite literally brought home the benefits of the more traditional village structure.
Marsascala, on the other hand, is marked by long stretches and disproportionate distances, only to be stoppered by sprawl on its edges and contours. The long promenade cuts a swathe across Zonqor Point and St Thomas Bay on either end, and both of them are then burdened by apartment blocks – snails carrying a shell of cramped-together dwellings. In between are the shops, restaurants and yes, some villas with ‘unobstructed views’ for those who can afford them.
It’s a mish-mash rearing for change – or rather, for streamlining and ‘completion’ – a completion which in Malta signals only oblivion.
This is why a raggedly hybrid place like Marsascala is so vulnerable to attacks of ‘development’. Its liminal state – between warm summer dwelling and tourist hub, between fishing village and cool hangout – is an affront, an offence.
And its edges must be smoothened into the choking nothingness that Transport Malta, the Planning Authority and – crucially – the status-hungry populace want. Anything that just “sits there” is a waste of time and resources.
The poverty of the Maltese school system – a reheated version of utiliatrian British methods based on rote learning and mechanised exams – means there is no oxygen left to cultivate a sense of enrichment and belonging in leaving things just as they are, and enjoying them as such.
Which is why we are left to suffer under the yoke of public officials such as the Planning Authority’s executive chairperson Martin Saliba, who equate the zombie-brained expansion of ugly urban sprawl with an inevitable drive towards a vaguely-defined “modern era” for Malta.
Distance is what isolates Marsascala, and what makes it vulnerable. You reach it after a long stretch, and you find it to be all alone. You imagine it cupped in the palm of a distracted sea-goddess.
No UNESCO-protected fortifications defend it from attack, alas.
The seaside village of Marsascala which served as my home for roughly six years up until recently has once again become a beacon of environmental resistance in Malta, after a government-sponsored proposal to choke its bay with a vulgarly gigantic yacht marina has led to a near-unanimous uproar among both activists and locals.
If the root of the complaint were not so depressing, such a united front would have been inspiring to witness. After all, it’s a ripple that follows on from a similar wave or organised dissent back in 2015, when the ‘American University of Malta’ was proposed on the same village’s outskirts.
This was to be a beacon legacy project for disgraced former prime minister Joseph Muscat and his chosen coterie of movers and shakers in the political and business world – a Malta-Jordan collaboration built on virgin land with a pre-packaged, pre-purchased American university syllabus aiming to attract further ‘high net worth’ individuals to spend their money in Malta and Gozo.
That the project is now little more than a shadow of its proposed self stands as something of a feather in the cap of the same environmentally-conscious protestors who took to the streets to fight it tooth and nail.
We should remember this. We often denigrade ourselves for not doing enough, or for doing too little, too late. Or for not accepting that the status quo will carry on in its usual churn regardless, and give into apathy and a sense of futility as a consequence.
But the long view is that while short-term battles may be lost and while, on the environmental front at least, the political and business hegemony may continue to treat us with utter contempt (whose unholy alliance is still not taboo, even after it was a direct contributor to the murder of a journalist), taking a stand still matters.
There’s a lot to scoff at in the current generation’s earnest, somewhat pat ideas on how to make life marginally more tolerable – as was the case for generations past. But I would insist on encouraging everyone involved in this ‘resistance’ to exercise a degree of self-compassion.
Following the concerted uproar, the American University of Malta was set to be split into two campuses – one ostensibly to remain in a ‘reduced’ capacity on Marsascala’s Zonqor Point, the other to occupy an historic colonial building at the harbour town of Bormla. The extension back to Zonqor will only happen if the Bormla campus fills up. This remains an unlikely outcome, given how student count amounted to under 100 by late 2019.
Activists should allow themselves not just self-compassion here, but an enlivening jolt of sadism too. This is a call to laugh at the critically wounded near-corpse of a mortal enemy. To cackle in the face of at least one of these offenders – who cackle at our earnest attempts to counter them nearly 24/7, as more and more obscenities crop up at every corner. It may not be the most noble emotion to indulge, but we deserve it. If anything, it will give us fuel for the next fight… which will always be around the corner.
I’ll be putting out some follow-up posts to this one, in which I’ll finally be dumping some memories and impressions of the town. Don’t expect amusing trivia and historical rigour. But feel free to expect pretty much anything else. I know I am.
With A Vipers’ Pit (Is-Sriep Regghu Saru Velenuzi) enjoying a healthy run at Eden Cinemas, I thought I’d compile a little guide for prospective viewers before they take a chance on our political thriller-family drama-literary adaptation.
Response has been better than anything I had every hoped for: reviews ranges from ecstatic to ecstatically disappointed, but indifference was never the least bit part of the equation. For a low-budget debut based on a beloved book which attempts to treat national wounds, it’s just the kind of response you want.
So here’s a handily collated list of some previews, interviews and even reviews that the film has already amassed so far.
When you spend a large chunk of your adult life going to the cinema during weird lonely hours as part of your job routine, something alters about the way in which you view that space. Working as a film critic for a national newspaper since I was 18 years old – albeit the nation being the micro-island state of Malta – while being blacklisted from the local distributor critics’ screenings for… reasons, meant that I got to watch films for review with a general audience, though rarely a full house.
A Friday deadline meant that I would need to get my films in by Thursday latest – leaving me little wiggle room as new films tended to make their way into cinemas on Wednesdays.
So aside from those rare occassions in which I could convince partners and/or friends to accompany me to watch a film that’s not entirely baker-fresh but which still remains reviewable after a weekend viewing, I got to spend a lot of lonely, torpid midweek afternoons in a darkened room with only a creepy trickle of strangers for company.
Looking back, it’s kind of jarring to think just how uninterrupted an activity film reviewing was for me.
There *was* a brief respite at the peak of my university years – during which I still maintained a nominal relationship with the newspaper, slotting in bits and pieces for the cultural supplement while one of Malta’s more veteran film critics took over – but I was soon back at it, penning a review for the then much-hyped Kate Winslet-starring middlebrow Oscar-courter, The Reader while starting my MA.
(How I would have loved to delve into Winslet’s richly devastating and utterly enthralling turn as the titular Mare of Easttown in HBO’s deservedly beloved recent mini-series. Or maybe that’s not true. Maybe I’m finding a new appreciation for just leaving things be).
The only thing that could stop me, it turns out, was a murderous global pandemic. Between mandated cinema closures, the paper shortening its culture pages, and me opting for a return to full-time employment to stem the resultant economic haemorrage, reviewing films made for one unfeasible activity too many.
It would be romantic to say that I miss the darkened rooms, the creak and pull of the seats, the crunch of popcorn (crushed by both tooth and boot) and the promise of the possibility of total, immersive storytelling, with the auditorium as a dark womb keeping the world at bay while beautiful lies are spun across a screen as large as six or so people and accompanied by deafening sound.
The reality is of course far more prosaic – even if you’re after that level of immersion, your fellow punters are unlikely to be as committed, and the advent of the smartphone, coupled with the tendency to view the cinema as an extension of one’s living room, are just additional punctures. I don’t think I miss anything about being a regular film reviewer.
If anything, I honestly appreciate the unwitting benefits of this covid-induced break. A treadmill implies thoughtless forward motion. Now, I can finally think about what I was doing all these years. Or rather, what the process has done to me and for me.
When all is said and done (though it never, of course, truly is) what film criticism gave to me was an opportunity to work on my craft as a writer. This was hardly a pre-planned process borne out of specific ambitions and career goals (I was not too young to dream, but I was certainly too young to do so in anything resembling a structured fashion).
Yes, I did love movies as far back as I could remember. Yes, I did make a habit of leafing through Empire Magazine whenever I saw it on the shelves, sometimes even buying my own copies with pocket money. Yes, I can sheepishly confess to Marilyn Manson’s autobiography being a trigger for me here, a particularly embarrassing confession given the has-been shock-rocker has now joined the ranks of the justifiably ‘cancelled’.
But at the time, he was a gateway drug into a more flamboyant universe which openly flouted the shit-steamed sauna of the boys-only secondary school I attended. I saw something in his early forays into zine culture and freelance journalism which clicked with me. That possibly taking his path could serve as a stepping stone to more fully-fledged creative work.
Reviewing films on a weekly basis also gave me a glimpse at the inner workings behind a key truism that’s often bandied about in the general direction of so-called ’emerging’ writers: That it ‘never gets easier’, and that every subsequent project will be just as tough to think through and execute as its predecessor. But I found this truism to be both true, and not.
Certainly, it’s shocking – and hilarious – to me to think back on those early all-nighters as I desperately battled with my inner demons to churn out 800 words before deadline day. Social media as we now know it did not exist back then, so I would take to the then still-extant IMDB forums to temper my own critical insecurities by parsing through the smogasbord of public opinion: deluding myself into thinking that this is how I will get a feel for the consensus opinion so that my own review will be more far-reaching in scope… but really, I was just shit-scared to committing to my own ideas and opinions because I felt they were lackluster and inadequate.
So while the amount of required concentration and effort to execute an effective review did not diminish with time – much as I fantasised about it as some sort of romantic possibility, I never got to a stage where I could thoughtlessly churn out a review and submit it in under an hour – I did learn to quieten at least some of those demons to a whisper.
Coupled with the fact that my career path subsequently forced me to learn to juggle far more than just that one 800-word review a week – between writing other articles, curating a culture section, copy-editing commerical press releases and proofreading the entire paper, I was left with little room to be precious about *anything* – submitting one review a week over a long stretch of time meant that I learned to predict how my thoughts pan out across the process while also picking up on new tricks that would help me save time and effort.
The first of these was learning to relax into the viewing experience and doing all that I can to take it in as an audience member, not through some sort of strained ‘critical’ eye that favours a rarefied perspective.
One step at a time: first comes the viewing, then the retrospective critique. This was a crucial lesson in respecting the stages of the writing process and giving them their due. When writing a script, it’s wiser to consider the outline and treatment before jumping into the scene… in the same way, I picked up on how it’s best to just let the film unspool over you before the critical demons start puncturing through to cloud the experience. This also had to do with knowing your audience and understanding the parameters of the job.
After all, I was writing for a national newspaper, not an academic journal or a magazine that specialises in cinema, so the core purpose of my review was to give readers a full picture of what the given film is about – not just in terms of plot (and I always endeavoured to keep spoilers at a minimum) but the overall feel and tone of what they’d be experiencing if they choose to watch it.
Once I twigged to this function of my reviews, it became easier to focus on the task at hand at sentence-level, instead of worrying about how my piece will fare in some imaginary hall of fame of cuttingly perceptive analytical studies of contemporary mainstream cinema. The advent of Rotten Tomatoes and aggregator-culture in general would have plunged the knife even deeper anyway: who the hell is going to actively seek out my review when a three-second Google search will likely resolve the question of whether or not they should waste their time with any given new release? Had I let this get to me, I would be toast.
Instead, I learned to appreciate the more immediate pleasures at hand: the possibility to reverse-engineer my experience of watching a film and to assess its entrails for what’s worth cooking, what should be discarded… and what could be used to map out my own future as a writer.
I’m sure there’s tons more of my kindred spirits scattered around which I could find if I deigned to look hard enough, but so far the only prose works to make me feel a frisson of recognition when it comes to all this are Caitlin R. Kiernan’s short story ‘The Prayer of Ninety Cats‘, and Gemma Files’ haunting novel Experimental Film. Though Kiernan and Files can broadly be said to form part of the upper tiers of the international genre fiction community – with those works in particular mining a vein of elegantly disturbing horror – their approaches differ even in the works in question.
But there is something in both ‘Cats’ and Experimental Film that speaks to me: the idea of criticism as a starting point for keener existential immersion that goes beyond meta-ficitonal games. The idea that regularly putting films under the microscope means abandoning yourself to a labyrinth that could, by definition, go either way.
Looking back on it now that I am no longer in the grind and can finally afford to take a broader perspective on things… the greatest value of criticism for me lay in having to fully visualise and reverse-engineer an entire film while writing about it. It sounds like the kind of phenomenological minutae that can dovetail all-too-easily into banality. But it’s something that I think, in the end, gave me the tools I needed to help picture plot outlines and arcs for myself in a more solid and grounded manner when it came to writing my own stuff.
In many ways – and to risk banality once again – the clue is in the name: review. You are forced to run through the film once again in your head – because no, I could never spare the time or expense for an *actual* rewatch – and that does train your visualisation muscles. You begin to create a mind palace of story – reflecting somebody else’s, sure, but also adaptable to your own, eventually. It’s a retracing and remapping process, where you skim back over your memory of the film to rediscover what was notable, or to confirm or disprove and assumptions that you hold. In this way, the process is also useful to assess your own knee-jerk reactions and inbuilt prejudices.
Was that bit of dialogue really that bad? Could it have simply been functional to the story, or a reflection of the character’s state of mind at the time? Was that bravura mix of swelling soundtrack and magic-hour cinematography really great filmmaking, or does it fall apart upon reflection? But is the reflection a moot point anyway? Could it be that the reviewing process is not always the right approach to these things – that the ephemeral should be valorised as such, that its immediate experiential result is what should be placed under the microscope, and nothing else?
These are things I learned only gradually, and in small steps. ‘Learned’ is also too definitive – it implies a completed process: signed, sealed, delivered. It would be more accurate to say that I learned to internalise certain lessons by glancing at them and making a note of them for next time. But when the next time rolled around, I may or may not have forgotten what I was supposed to have learned. And the process starts again without the luxury of reflection, because the tickets have been bought, the voluminous Thursday afternoon seats are beckoning, and the Friday deadline is looming.
Film reviewing taught me to write. It could have been film reviewing, it could have been something else, but that’s what I was handed and it was a privilege in its own way. I entered in medias res – I did not start reviewing after a stint in film school (there was no such thing at the time in Malta, and there still barely is), and I only learned to pick up on film history further along the line, and in my own time. So there was no chronological development here for me – my training trenches were the early noughties releases from mainstream Hollywood, for the most part.
Truth be told, I don’t miss it terribly. Being a semi-professional opinion-haver is a thoroughly unsexy thing to be in this day and age, when social media has democratised such chatter to oblivion. (Actually, oblivion is too kind as it once again implies finality – a feverish vortex would probably make for a better fit).
But I am glad to the Hollywood behemoth for giving me a training mat on which I could jump, fall, and make a fool of myself before getting up again to fight another day. Its steely chassis will barely have registered the clinking and plinking punches from tiny Malta, so my necessary mistakes were allowed wide berth and shame was ever a stranger.
“Take no enterprise in hand at haphazard, or without regard to the principles governing its proper execution”
– Marcus Aurelius (Meditations, Book Four)
Yes, I’ve been cracking open ye olde Meditations back up because some advice from the grandfather and grandmaster of Stoic philosophy would certainly not go amiss right now, when uncertainty is the order of the day and the mainstream world media — especially its malignant ‘social’ offshoot — is doing absolutely zero to counter the mood with some sense of sobriety or perspective.
But the above quote popped out for me, during my now once again regular re-read of the embattled Ancient Roman emperor’s diary to self, for reasons that have very little to do with the essential self-care we need all the more urgently at this moment in time.
No, the reminder to do nothing at ‘haphazard’ reached me on a more professional — or rather, vocational — level, as I felt it very much got to the heart of an important lesson I have learned about writing narrative stories — be they in prose or script format — over the past couple of years.
Marcus Aurelius via Batman, or vice versa: Daily meditation with the Meditations, with journal entries jotted into the Bat-book
It’s not a glamorous fact of the writing life, and neither is it bound up to the ‘tortured artist’ archetype in any way. In fact, in a lot of ways what I’m about to talk about swerves directly into the opposite camp, and perhaps the times we are living in call for precisely the kind of habits that evoke a degree of control and agency over the traditionally — notoriously — chaotic process of making up stories from scratch.
I’m talking about finding the rationale that lies behind either your plot mechanism, or the choices your characters make, in the interest of improving them for the benefit of subsequent drafts.
Now ‘character’ and ‘plot’ are almost always inextricably bound together, or at least they should be. What should we call this? I’m struggling to think of a more bite-sized term for it right now. Is it as broad as ‘rewriting’ or ‘editing’? Is it just ‘tweaking’, or does that teensy word not quite do it? Maybe I’ll arrive to the correct term or neulogism, maybe not. The point is that the process I’m describing often takes on a similar trajectory: that of working away at issues, problems and unwanted lacunae through the process of writing itself.
For me, it’s important that this does not happen before a complete draft is well and truly finished. An imperfect draft, sure. But a complete one. That allows me to see the big picture — such as it is — and make a clear and rational assessment of what needs to be fixed.
That’s why the Marcus Aurelius quote resonated with me. Sending off that draft without having polished it up, or even stopping half-way through to tweak at something that I nervously, pre-emptively assume is gonna be a problem later on, would indeed by a haphazard way of going about it. A script, novel or short story often has a lot of stuff going on inside it. Even the most minimalist of stories and narrative situations need to be informed by subtext, by nested considerations that move things forward, that plant seeds in the reader/viewer’s mind before hopefully being taken to full term in the most felicitous way possible.
But beyond the disciplinarian ‘good sense’ of not rushing things and giving them their due before assuming they’re ready so that you can focus and/or indulge in something else, the Meditations quote also got at something I legitimately find pleasurable about this stage of the writing process.
Just like certain filmmakers live by the dictum that ‘directing is the price you pay for going into the editing room later’, I find the greatest pleasure in cutting underneath the draft I’ve just written (over and above the more obvious, superficial ‘cuts’ that are also inevitably made) and figuring out why something doesn’t work, and how it could work better.
I think the ‘fun’ of this process has a lot to do with a sense of regaining control over the work. Now that the draft’s done, there’s far less of that Dark Night of the Soul feeling descending, and the associated ‘staring at the blank page’ jitters that either accompany it or are triggered by it. I can finally bring the full extent of my rational and analytical mind to bear: the same mind that I’ve chiseled into a decent-enough shape through my academic training and working as a film reviewer for over 15 years.
So finally, a touch of the familiar, the graspable and the tangible appears through the haze of uncertainty that otherwise characterises the writing process. It’s an uncertainty that is conducive to both chaos and play, to be sure, so that it can be fun in its own way. But regaining a sense of control is also affirming and energising.
This brings me to the latter part of the Aurelius aphorism, the bit about ‘the principles governing its proper execution’. Because the process of making something better through this kind of reworking would be hollowed out if it didn’t consider the in-depth internal logic of whatever problem you’re facing.
My most immediate experience of this process had to do with responding to a script note that called for a pivotal event in the story to occur much, much earlier than it does in the script as-is. My producer and I both agreed that we should think of a way to take this criticism on board and implement it productively, without compromising the integrity of the script as a whole.
So I got to thinking about how this action would alter some of the characters’ actions throughout the script as-is. I went back to the quasi-literal drawing board, writing out the logical trajectory of these change in long-hand. The end goal of this was to have a clear, bullet-pointed battle plan for what needs to be done. The changes that need to be implemented so as to make this note work. And it did happen, eventually.
But before I could get there, I spent a few pages writing out the characters’ motivations for taking this particular action, in this particular order, to accommodate the changes in line with a new chronology. This also led me to reconsider some taken-for-granted aspects of the characters in question. I thought I knew them. Turns out I didn’t get a chance to know them all that well, before.
In working out a logic that would justify the alterations suggested by the note, new things clicked into place. No, that one character doesn’t have to be as passive as they appear. They do have a desire, it’s just submerged so deeply it’s barley visible. And we need to think of ways to make that pop out. And so on.
In short, the process got me thinking about the ‘principles governing the proper execution’ of this character, and a couple of others who orbit around them and are influenced by their actions. It felt both rational, and organic. Like a clear understanding of something that lives and breathes, and which may yet surprise you in positive ways if you lay down a good environment in which it can thrive.
Chaos is often the order of the day because we aren’t born with a map at birth and cannot see into the future, which is why good stories are built in a way that respects certain internal harmonies that promote coherence. Focusing on the elements of the craft in this way has helped me find a ballast in these times. There’s a baseline for who we are no matter what happens around us, and that internal coherence is crucial to maintain because of what’s coming at us all the time, pandemic or not.
PS: Keeping me sane and out of the maddening rigmarole of the frenzied news cycle are great reads such as this, and this, as well as the ‘Coronavirus Newsroom’ set up in the Members’ Area of the Rune Soup portal.
Just like many other freelancers the world over, the economic fallout of the covid-19 epidemic has left me scrambling for work that would ensure my livelihood in the coming months. Scrambling is something out tribe is accustomed to, of course, and I’ve often been in this situation before and have emerged (relatively) unscathed.
But of course, these are extraordinary times, during which some old clients will scram any prospective ones suddenly find themselves denuded of any lust for adventurous new collaborations.
Freelancing in marginally less trying times, with thought bubble lamp for added effect
To this end, I would like to invite anyone who does retain a sense of adventure during these trying times to consider taking on my services as a freelance writer with experience in various fields — journalism, content writing and scriptwriting being the main three, though I’d be more than happy to work on anything you’ve got going as long as it’s in English and the deadlines are humane.
Neither is there any need to simply take my own word for it, however: do take a look at what some kindly but exacting professionals had to say about my work in various fields by popping over to the ‘Services‘ section of this very site.
Though it’s hardly the Netflix back (and front) catalogue, some of my own work could very easily keep you company while you’re social distancing away at home.
My debut novel started life as a piece of flash fiction, tumbled into larger and more mottled being thanks to the steady encouragement of Merlin Publishers’ Chris Gruppetta and was released into the little slice of world that would have it at the beautiful Cafe Wignacourt in Rabat, my Maltese town-crush.
Very much a debut novel in spirit, tone and theme, it is a labour of equal parts love and pain: deeply autobiographical and largely told from the POV of a young child, for gods’ sake. Does it get any more debut novel-y than that?!
You can find out more about it here. Those of you in Malta and Gozo can currently avail themselves of a 25% discount from Merlin Publishers — a covid-solidarity move that applies to all of their books. Do also check out Awguri, Giovanni Bonello, featuring a vampire-tinged historical fiction tale that was a blast to write, and which dovetails nicely into our next item…
Short Film: Camilla
Literary film adaptation and vampires are just about two of my favourite things, so it was an honour and a pleasure to be able to adapt Clare Azzopardi’s ‘Camilla’ into a short film, together with Stephanie Sant (who co-wrote and directed) and under the ever-intrepid auspices of producer Martin Bonnici (Shadeena Entertainment). The film was made possible thanks to a competitive fund awarded to us by the National Book Council, whose sterling work can, I hope, continue unabated after all this mess is over.
Meanwhile, please feel free to enjoy our 21-minute slice of Mediterranean Gothic, cross-generational romantic intrigue and sexual discovery, all wrapped up in a coming-of-age story featuring a wide-eyed but hardly bushy-tailed protagonist, brought to entrancing life by Steffi Thake, working under the austere shadow cast by the inimitable Irene Christ.
We can’t manage to catch a break in Malta, can we? It’s been at least since last November that some kind of mental stability or continuity — the latter being a repeated slogan in the party leadership campaign that was to crown the November madness — was the norm in both public and private life.
I was actually on a break of sorts when that first crisis hit. High on the freshly released fumes of success generated by our being awarded the inaugural Malta Book Council feature film fund for our feature film adaptation of Alex Vella Gera’s Is-Sriep Regghu Saru Velenuzi, I decided to go for an early, modest version of a writerly fantasy and booked a ‘writing retreat’ at the sister island of Gozo in off-season.
It was a no-brainer, at least in theory. I chose to stay at the notoriously quiet village of Gharb, with a pipe-shaft view from my typing window and grossly over-pixelated landscape printouts hanging by the bed. So, no distractions there. The breakfasts were also nice and energising — full English, with a dollop of French sweets and Gozitan cheeselets on the side — and having paid in full for room and board meant that I was internally pressured to get cracking on the reams of research and story development that needed to be done.
But the trip also coincided with the arrest of Yorgen Fenech, so I could forget all about isolation and silence, in the broadest sense of the word. How could I resist checking my phone when the political status quo of the island was being dismantled right before our eyes? Not least when the project itself hardly offered a neat cutoff point: my research dealt with political violence and corruption in 1980s Malta, and if anything was to be salvaged from the distraction it was that the resonances between then and now ensured that our film will be laced with an enduring, if unfortunate, relevance.
With the fallout came the protests, and an unprecedented political crisis culminating in the resignation of then prime minister Joseph Muscat and the election of Robert Abela in his stead, with a reshuffled cabinet following suit. As alluded to above, ‘continuity’ was the watchword, and Abela — to the cynical chuckles of many — quickly declared that ‘normality’ has been restored to the island.
The onset of the global covid-19 pandemic makes short work of precisely that kind of rhetoric. We have seen how it’s served to symbolically unseat the likes of Donald Trump, whose bluff and bluster collapses ‘like a flan in a cupboard’ when faced with a threat both invisible and undeniable. Though I would caution against declaring that ‘the Trump presidency is over‘ so categorically — the orange oaf has survived a record amount of scandals — watching him scramble for some political purchase while playing the same old xenophobic tunes is just farcical at this point.
But it’s not just limited to politicians. The sight of suddenly quarantined celebrity actors deciding to make use of their newly housebound condition to splice together a group singalong of John Lennon’s Imagine — “Imagine there’s no people” is hardly the thing you want to hear while a murderous pandemic continues to spread on a murderous rampage of the elderly and otherwise vulnerable — also points to the tone-deaf nature of another privileged class.
The cluelessness of the global rich is hardly news — Best Picture winner Parasite all but rendered it into an archetype, and these elites are actually nice — but a pandemic has away of making it all come out like a particularly eye-grabbing Lovecraftian bas relief.
So yes, we’re still very much not getting a break right now: not from the bone-headed stupidity of the global hegemony, not from the callousness and stupidity of those at the top. But we’re joined in this worldwide, and while the imposition to enforce ‘social distancing’ certainly lends fuel to the fire of certain xenophobic tendencies informed by the idea of the infectious and corrupting nature of otherness, we’re also getting to see limits of our status quo.
A status quo within which, as a self-employed freelance writer, I am likely doomed to remain on the fringes of, for better or worse.
(Here’s the bit where ask anyone who’s reading this to consider making use of my services as a journalist, content writer or scriptwriter during these trying times, as existing clients start to bail and any prospective ones suddenly be).
Perhaps some would call the largely worldwide self-quarantine a break of some sorts, though of course it’s not that, not by a long stretch. But it’s certainly a break in the aggressive sense, a rupture of the old routines we’re now scrambling to become accustomed to, with varying degrees of success, and each in their own way.
I’ll try to keep chasing the resonances. Even if they’re not all pleasant ones. Because in times like these, some kind of internal coherence is what we need more than anything else.
A South American migrant whose mother is undocumented – that the Thrombey heirs and in-laws consistently getting her nationality wrong during police interrogations is one of the film’s best running gags; some say she’s from Ecuador, others from Paraguay – she does her best to placate the spoiled brood after a plot-important (and therefore spoilery) development flips the power dynamic between her and her erstwhile employers, edging the proverbial knives out of the rich family’s sheathes and placing the perennially good-hearted Marta in a thoroughly uncomfortable position.
Keen to show that she has no intention of offending or otherwise discomfiting the Thrombeys in light of this new development, Marta insists on pointing out how the family has been “good to [her]” by giving her employment and at least ostensibly making her feel part of the privileged Thrombey fold while she took care of their patriarch in his dotage.
The family takes this as a given, never for a second considering that there could have been any ‘decent’ alternative way for all of this to pan out. Being a migrant, her inherent abjection and lack of agency is the default setting she’s expected to operate under. Though nominally valued, the work she does for the family is not nearly enough to grant her anything resembling full personhood, and anything that crosses the line of that rigidly defined master and servant relationship is to be apologised for profusely, or else.
Keeping up with the Thrombeys: After Harlan Thrombey (centre) is found dead in an apparent suicide, the rest of his family decend into a not-so-petty extended squabble over the spoils
It is at this point that Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) – Johnson’s wonderfully conceived riposte to the Sherlock Holmes/Hercule Poirot archetype, gleefully brought to life by a relaxed and game post-Bond Craig – crosses a line of his own. Lifting the veil of cold calculated deductive reasoning that has so far been his modus operandi (and that of his literary and filmic antecedents in the detective genre), he interrupts Marta by giving in to a bubbling ethical indignation:
“Excuse me. You have not been good to her. You have all treated her like shit […] You’re a pack of bloody vultures at the feast, but you’re not getting bailed out, not this time.”
We can make much out of Blanc being something of a ‘white knight’ in this situation, also pointing out that most migrants out there do not in fact have such figures bursting through to speak out in their favour when things get really tough. But within the context of the film, Blanc’s outburst serves as a welcome bit of catharsis. How much of this misguided, undeserved and disingenuous shit are we going to take, and for how long?
Disgraced former tourism and energy minister Konrad Mizzi recently evoked something of a similar reaction in local quarters after posting an incendiary Facebook post following a literally incendiary event in Marsa.
“You fled your country. We saved you from drowning. We gave you shelter in our home. We dressed you, fed you. But now learn to respect us, our culture, our religion and the Maltese population,” Konrad Mizzi wrote on Facebook on January 8th, 2019, in the wake of a fire engulfing the Marsa Open Centre, which led to the arrest of 20 people.
Like the Thrombeys, Mizzi betrays no qualms at lumping all migrants in the same basket, with an added sting of political convenience handy to local politicians – particularly ones given the chop in the wake of shady financial dealings, who are now perhaps hoping that a new party leader will allow them to once again rise in the party ranks, previous sins washed clean as they are buoyed back into the public discourse by this recent appeal to far-right sentiment.
Mizzi does indeed expect all migrants to merely shut up and take any indignity thrown at them, except perhaps when they open their mouths to intone just how “good to them” we’ve been for allowing them the privilege of taking shelter on our island.
Never mind that the true source of the fire has yet to be determined, and never mind that this rush to condemn sits uncomfortably when compared to Mizzi’s own post-Panama political trajectory, during which we were all expected to let the legalisms that have exonerated him to speak for themselves.
Never mind that, even if the fires at the Marsa open centre are proven to have been deliberately started by migrants housed there, Mizzi’s diabolically moralistic generalisation cannot even begin to hold water: it assumes that all of the migrants there would have been in full agreement with any criminal action taking place.
And in this particular case, the notion that the migrants at the open centre should be grateful to us for ‘housing’ them is also off base: by its very definition, the open centre largely serves as a transitional space in which migrants are made to wait while their paperwork is processed and before they are given the go-ahead to either stay in the country or move elsewhere.
But apart from being an obvious and cheap attempt at garnering public support from literally the most toxic of national sources, Mizzi’s attitude is also redolent of the kind of ‘logic’ and ‘common sense’ which underpins some of the same toxicity within the migration debate. ‘We will charitably do our bit to welcome third country nationals into the country, but if they dare express anything other than adulation of even consider making minor legal infringements – infringements that we’d easily forgive among ‘our own’ – the only thing they should look forward to is swift deportation’.
Ana de Armas is Marta Cabrera in Knives Out (2019)
It is a logic that is accurately, meticulously and painfully articulated in Knives Out. In an early scene – or rather, early confessional flashback – Marta is brought in as an unwitting ‘exhibit A’ of the ‘good migrant’ by Richard (Don Johnson), as a tangible closing salvo to a family debate on Donald Trump’s heinous migration border policy (Ol’ 45 is not explicitly mentioned by name, but the correlation is impossible not to make). Conceding that ‘putting children in cages’ is a bad thing, Richard clings to legalisms:
“But I blame the parents […] for breaking the law. You’re going to hate hearing this but it’s true, America is for Americans.”
It’s at this point that Richard commands a vigilant and nervous Marta to come over, as if a walking, (barely) talking illustration of his point. Making a point to wave his polished-off cake plate at the trembling girl, to be taken away later, Richard carries on,
“Marta, your family came from Uruguay but you did it right, she did it legally, I’m saying. You work hard, and you’ll earn your share from the ground up just like dad and all of us did – Marta I bet you agree with me.”
Never mind Richard obliviousness to both Marta’s own true country of origin (something the audience itself never becomes privy to either, to be fair); the fact that Richard is also ignorant of her family’s legal status is of course the deeper cut. Once that truth is revealed – by one of the supposedly more ‘woke’ members of the Thrombey family – the information gives way to blackmail, not help from this monied and influential family. Truly, they have not been, and will insist on never being, good to her.
Many arguments in favour of existing, status quo migration policies accuse the ‘other side’ of sentimentality or misdirected compassion, of refusing to consider the rational underpinnings behind arguments like ‘America is for Americans’, ‘illegal immigrants are simply breaking the law’.
But pronouncements like Mizzi’s own are also an act of obfuscation, apart from being a vulgar attempt to piggyback on racist undercurrents in an attempt to salvage some form of political capital. In framing migration policy as little more than an act of charity, Mizzi conveniently dodges the responsibility of rigour that is crucial if one is to honestly engage with issues of such complexity.
It’s a smoke-and-mirrors exercise made possible through the mechanisms of privilege – Mizzi’s own monied background, his history as a politician which, however chequered, still garners active support from a vocal contingent of Labour supporters – and it’s also the main obstacle that Benoit Blanc faces as he attempts to crack the case he’s now facing.
Because while Marta’s part in Johnson’s serpentine plot is hardly as simple as her otherwise diminished social standing would suggest, the Thrombey’s arsenal of cash and influence goes a long way towards making the case as juicy and complex as possible, as an eleventh-hour reappearance of an absent Thrombey scion makes clear as the film transitions from the second act to its third.
Somewhere over gravity’s rainbow: Daniel Craig is Benoit Blanc
Blanc uses the title of Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow to describe his working method to Marta – a famously impenetrable tome that neither of them have read, but whose title Blanc is partial to because,
“It describes the path of a projectile, determined by natural law. Voila, my method. I observe the facts without biases of the head or heart, I determine the arc’s path, stroll leisurely to its terminus, and the truth falls at my feet.”
Mizzi and other politicians of his ilk are in the business of putting themselves precisely in the path of the projectile, blocking a thorough examination of the truth by opening the floodgates to angry, misguided sections of the electorate who will offer them their support in the wake of such toxic battle cries.
It is a self-serving move masquerading as a beacon of wider social concern, and it precisely encapsulates the paradox of figures like Konrad Mizzi: well-oiled businessmen brought into the fold of an ascendant Labour Party and asked to deploy their technocratic skills in the interest of securing continued victory.
It’s a paradox that also came undone in the wake of a murder – that of Daphne Caruana Galizia, whose mysteries have been unravelled somewhat, but not in their entirety.
To say that my adoptive home country is going through some turbulent stuff right now would be the understatement of an already-overstated century, but that doesn’t mean that wallowing in the chaotic morass is in any way productive or desirable… addictive as it may be.
Irreconcilable paradoxes and hastily grasped-at truths and half-truths are often the hallmark of great fiction, for the very reason that they tend to bug and scare us most of the time. This is where writers (and artists of every ilk) can actually step in to do some undeniable Good Work that affects Society at Large. By giving these ambiguities a thorough airing, they can allow us to point at our condition and feel truly ‘seen’.
Clare Azzopardi‘s latest novel Castillois many things, but at its root is a desire to express the ever-relevant – and now, sadly, even topical – helplessness we feel when faced with endemic corruption and apparently sanctified violence. Amanda Barbara seeks out her estranged mother following the death of the father who raised her, only to learn that the matriarch was errant as well as absent: almost off-hand, she confesses to committing two murders a couple of decades ago and feels not a little bit of guilt about her actions.
The real twist in the tale in many ways is the involvement of Cathy ‘K.’ Penza, also recently deceased and by all accounts the ‘cool aunt’ figure for Amanda… not least thanks to her side-career as the celebrated writer behind the ‘Castillo’ crime novels, extracts from which Azzopardi regales us with in interspersed chapters that deftly and joyfully display a masterful grasp of cross-genre pastiche.
It’s not just because of the novels-within-a-novel device – though this may be the most explicit manifestation of this strand of Azzopardi’s many talents – but with Castillo, Clare Azzopardi once again proves herself as one of the most engaging and full-rounded authors in the local sphere.
A novel about gender, motherhood, the reverberating and unresolved echoes of political violence past, Castillo always remains very much a detective novel through and through, albeit one with a ‘twist’, relegating the conventional cloak-and-dagger and noir trappings to the embedded fictional detective, but leaving plenty of work for Amanda to do.
This, to my mind, is the true strength of Azzopardi’s novel: never once does she drop the ball, never once does she forget to do the necessary TLC that ensures this aesthetic cohesion that makes the novel such a solidly held-together experience. The ‘Castillo’ chapters aren’t just a clever garnish, they are firmly rooted to it all. The spectre of violence made manifest. If journalism is the first draft of history, the detective is its first archaeologist, digging up bones marked with streaks of fresh flesh.
Here’s hoping Castillo is translated thick, wide and fast.
Some shameless self-promotion now, though not unrelated to the author under discussion. Last year, we’ve had the privilege of adapting a short story by Clare Azzopardi into a short film, and we brought in a landmark work by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu to help along.
‘Camilla‘ was co-written by its director Stephanie Sant and myself, produced by Martin Bonnici of Shadeena Entertainment and made possible thanks to the National Book Council (Malta), after it won its Short Film Contest in 2018. The source material is taken from Azzopardi’s award-winning, female-centered anthology Kulhadd Halla Isem Warajh, and in adapting the story I did a bit of archaeology of my own, calling up Laura from Le Fanu’s ‘Carmilla’ to serve as an audience stand-in and ultimately, protagonist, in the interest of keeping the enigma at the root of the titular character intact.
Both roles were played with sensitivity, grace and quiet potency by Steffi Thake and Irene Christ, and I couldn’t be happier with the end result.
‘Camilla’ is now free for all to see on YouTube, and I hope you enjoy it.