Interview: Rebecca Cremona on the fascinating true story of ‘Simshar’

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Last week, I had the pleasure of chatting with the lovely Rebecca Cremona, director of the film Simshar. Cremona is having quite an exciting year, as Simshar holds the dual distinction of being her debut feature, as well as being Malta’s first ever Oscar submission for Best Foreign Language Film. It tells the tragic real life story of a fishing trip gone wrong and the unfortunate sociopolitical implications surrounding it. In our interview, we discussed the making of the film and many other interesting tidbits. Below is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Shane Slater: How did you decide to make this story as your first film?

Rebecca Cremona: In 2008, I was in the US doing my Master’s degree in Directing and I was thinking, what would be a good start? I had a feeling that it would be good to do something which was multi-story but had a universal angle to it, because of feeling comfortable with writing and showing what I know. That was my interest. Malta is very particular. It has a history of many films being shot there, but not shooting in Malta as Malta. It always doubles as Jordan or Jaffa, you know? So there was a bit of a patriotic element as well. There’s this beautiful setting, with a really interesting sociopolitical topography being between Africa and Europe.

I was reading the news online in Malta and that summer, there was this terrible tragedy that really shook the island. There was lots of press about it. Then when I went home in Christmas, I met an acquaintance of mine who knew the survivor and he said he could get me a meeting with him. At first I didn’t think anything of it. I said yes because I thought, what a great opportunity to meet someone who’s gone through so much. You don’t get that opportunity every day. I did it more as an anthropological interest.

At that time, when I met Simon he had gone from being a big national hero for having survived, to being really demonized because there were all these changes brought against him for negligence and manslaughter. Then his wife left him and took the little boy. So he was all alone, still physically recovering. He had a lot of surgery afterwards because of the corrosion of the sea salt in his skin. He had more salt than blood in his body at one point. It’s a miracle he’s alive. So he was in a really bad state.

It was interesting, he was really willing to talk because he basically had no company. I literally spent a week with him, going there every day and we were baking bad Christmas sweets and drinking Baileys. [Laughs]. He was just talking and talking, and I thought it was exceptionally interesting what he had gone through. At the end the week I thought, this makes for an amazing documentary but I don’t feel that documentaries are my calling.

Then I just exclaimed “It’s amazing that for seven days you were in the water and nobody saw you. There’s so much traffic in the Mediterranean.” But he replied “What makes you think no one saw us? We were seen, we just weren’t rescued.” I had read all the press about it and everyone made that assumption (that no one saw him). Then when he said that, at first I didn’t believe him, he must be mistaken. Then I started asking other fishermen, captains of trawlers and also leisure boat owners. They all had stories. The fishermen had stories about how they had rescued migrants and then been arrested for suspicion of smuggling. The captains of the trawlers told me how the insurance companies were briefing them about how to avoid migrants so that they don’t incur losses.

There was this really nice guy, he shocked me. He told me how once he was on his boat alone and there were about 12 strong guys in the water and he didn’t save them. He was afraid they would just take over his boat. I was like, oh my God, this was happening all the time and we didn’t know about it. I just thought, now there’s a story. There’s a story that I think is extremely compelling but I also felt it was a story that could explore many themes that I am interested in.

So that’s how it came about and I felt really strongly about it. Although I had a few other drafts of ideas, I really felt that this should be the first one because of the urgency. It did cross my mind that this is very topical, but what if it takes me a while to make the film? Which it did. [Laughs]. Unfortunately, it just became more and more topical. Now, not only is immigration by boat happening from Libya, but also from Egypt and Syria etc. It’s increased, and it’s terrible that people are risking their lives like that and the rescue structure is not coping with it.

SS: The Simshar tragedy happened fairly recently. Were you at all apprehensive about telling this story so soon?

RC: You know, now Simon and his wife are back together and that’s kind of because of the film. We had to get them in the same room to discuss the life rights. So basically, I became very close to the family over these 6 years. Like Aiden, I met him when he was 6 and now he’s 12, so I’ve literally known him for half his life. They even had a baby while we were shooting and Simon is an extra in the film. So they were very involved. I watched the film with Aiden the first time he watched it, so he understands that although it’s based on a true story, there’s a lot of artistic license.

So because I was so close with them and it was so therapeutic for Simon, I didn’t feel like we were disrespecting the family. The only stipulations Sharon had were that she would never watch the film, and it would be dedicated to her son. For her, this was an ode to her son. With Simon, he felt the story should be shared, so hopefully good would come out of it and next time it will be avoided.

Navigating from the beginning to now, there have always been a lot of moral questions. But we were lucky we had good relationships all along. It was really interesting when we were on the cargo ship in the water with the group of migrants. On the first day, we were explaining exactly what this was about and what was going to happen and there was this collective realization…”Oh my God, this is our story.” Then they started pitching in about what they had done when this happened to them. It was so amazing because they got really involved, it was such a special moment. We had a lot of special moments because of the nature of the film, but that one I would never forget. We actually changed some of the scenes to incorporate what they were saying. With certain actions, I wouldn’t even tell them what to do. I would just let it happen. They’re so used to it. They travel most of Africa to get to Libya, they’re in camps, they do the crossing and these sorts of things happen. They come to Malta, Italy, Greece and they’re in camps again and similar things happen. So, for them it’s everyday life. Sometimes the line between what was real and what was fiction was quite blurred. Interestingly enough, that cargo ship rescued migrants in a very similar situation two months later. When I read that in the newspaper I was like, “Oh my God, that’s the boat we used!”

SS: I was quite impressed with your multinational ensemble cast. How did you go about casting the right actors for these roles?

RC: First and foremost, I always thought it was important that the film is mostly Maltese. The film is about cultural identity, tradition and change. It would be ridiculous if it were in English, although we are bilingual. I really wanted that bilingualism to be there in the film. That of course guides the casting, because not everybody can speak Maltese. With Clare (who plays Sharon), it was first because of her look that I thought of her. Then I did the audition when she had just become a mother, and there was something that resonated so much with her.

Then Chrysander (who plays the part of the soldier John), he’s actually a stand-up comedian in Malta. I was on a TV program where he was a guest as well and I realized that as a person, he was really the sort of character I wanted John to be. It was interesting, because it was a first for him to not play a slapstick or stand-up part.

With Lofti, I needed someone of a certain age, of a certain look. Also, I felt that he needed to have a bit of experience and there really isn’t that in Malta. Then actually, the casting director who did the casting for several films that had come to Malta, he recommended Lofti (a Tunisian actor). So I met up with Lofti and we ended up being on the same wavelength. He actually learned Maltese for the film, because Tunisian Arabic and Maltese are almost the same. So that allowed me to cast internationally but retain the language.

Then Sékouba and Laura were in a film called Donoma, which was a guerrilla film in France that did really well. Our associate producer’s French and she had contact with the cast of Donoma, so she’s the one who brought them forward as potentials. Again, with Sékouba it was so interesting because when I spoke to him about it he said “I just realized now what my dad must have gone through.” So then he really got into it. Laura is just an extremely striking and very passionate performer.

Also, then there was Jimi (who plays Karmenu, the grandfather), he’s actually a fisherman. When I saw his face, I was like “I want him.” [Laughs]. So we had professional actors, non-actors, people playing themselves, kids coming acting school for their first experience. So there was a challenge to juggle all those and make sure they all feel like they’re in the same film.

simshar12SS: Your film is the first to be submitted by Malta for the Foreign Language Oscar. Is there any internal or external pressure that comes along with that?

RC: Of course! [Laughs]. I mean, it’s an honor to represent a country but it’s also a lot of pressure. In a way, it’s a bit ridiculous because you know, how can one group of people with one vision represent a country? But it’s really nice that they put us forward, especially being the first time. In a way, there’s more expectation.

With this whole process there has been so much pressure and stress throughout the six years that my team and I have decided to just focus on the task at hand. If you think too much about the pressure and the meaning of representing Malta, it can take over and be counter-productive and you just freeze up. We had a 3-month cinema run in Malta and it was really popular. So I’m hoping that the majority are actually behind us.

Making the film was so difficult with the resources we had. It literally was a national effort. In the credits you can see almost every local council, government entities and private companies. In that sense, I feel quite OK with representing the country, because we all came together to make the film.

SS: Going forward in your career, are there any specific kinds of stories or genres you want to explore?

RC: I really enjoy the perks that come with globalization but on the other hand, I love all the beauty that comes with tradition. So I did feel this sort of dilemma about moving forward with the perks that come with globalization without losing that beauty and strong cultural identity. Globalization means “to mix” and strong cultural identity has historically come from isolation, in a way. So that’s really interesting to me. The amounts of stories that can tap into that are infinite and are quite pertinent to how we live today. I love Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding and Salaam Bombay! for example, and Cuaron’s Y tu mamá también. These local stories that have international contexts and aspects really resonate with me.

SS: We don’t know much about the Maltese film industry over here. When I was watching the film I realized it was the first time I was hearing the Maltese language. Can you give any more insight into what the industry is like?

RC: Malta has a long-standing tradition of film servicing. Films like Popeye, U-571, Munich, World War Z and The Count of Monte Cristo were all shot in Malta. Many of those sets and props have been around for decades. So there’s this history of film-making, but not of making our own films.

But now they’ve established a film fund and we’re actually the first film to come out of that. At the moment, there’s another film being shot with the film fund. So it’s like the local film industry is just starting. Of course, there are a lot of challenges. We have a population of 400,000 people so you know, because of economies of scale it’s very challenging.

It’s interesting because a lot of the heads of departments for this film had worked in the film servicing industry for many years. So they had this amazing experience and skill sets from working on some of the biggest films ever made. It was really great, this Simshar family. It was an opportunity for everyone to tell our own story and use our skills to move up the ladder. Now it feels like it’s going to come to an end and it’s almost sad. But of course, it can’t go on forever.

SS: Do you think you’ll keep making films in Malta, or do you have any plans to maybe try Hollywood?

RC: I think it all depends on the story. I’d love to make good stories, wherever they come from. For my first one, I thought it was very important for me to be in a milieu that I’m familiar with. I hope that as I grow, I will become more confident and it’s about the themes, the stories, the characters. If those themes are in an American film, that’s fine. That’s why I think cinema’s so beautiful. It really communicates across such diverse communities. So anywhere that there are good stories, I’m very happy to go.

Click here for my review of Simshar.