The disappointment expressed by the arts community earlier this year when the well-loved Valletta Film Festival organised by the Film Grain Foundation could not be held due to lack of funding turned into shock when the government’s Valletta Cultural Agency announced its own open air film festival.
The development has caused VFF co-organiser Oliver Mallia to express concern about the monopolisation of culture by the government.
For some 10,000 film enthusiasts, the Valletta Film Festival had fast become a staple, annual celebration of independent cinema; a respected cultural event tucked intimately into the capital’s historic buildings every June.
After the festival failed to receive sufficient public funds from the Arts Council, or other entities, to organise the event, the event was cancelled.
Now, the government’s Valletta Cultural Agency, an indefinite extension of the controversial Valletta 2018 agency headed by Jason Micallef – announced that its 100% publicly financed, open air festival this June ‘Cinema City’ will screen commercial US blockbusters which already dominate the local box office and the polar opposite of independent cinema.
Mallia, the co-founder and co-director of the foundation and of VFF told The Shift that while he was disappointed, he was not surprised by the news.
Despite positive feedback from the council earlier this year, funding for the festival was ultimately refused, he explained. The refusal followed a three-year partnership agreement with the council which expired in 2019 and constituted 30% of the revenue.
In the end, the council and the Valletta Cultural Agency offered less than one-third of the funding that the Foundation had applied for, an amount that was insufficient to organise a festival of the same standard that VFF strived to reach annually, resulting in the foundation refusing the offer.
Now, a few months later, Valletta Cultural Agency has launched Cinema City.
“I am of the opinion that it is high time for the Government to stop cultural institutions like Valletta Cultural Agency, Malta Film Commission, Malta Tourism Authority and others from organising shows themselves,” Mallia told The Shift when contacted.
Their role should only be limited to offering support to artists to produce, exhibit, or perform their work through properly promoted public calls that are adjudicated in a fair, professional, and transparent manner, he believes.
“It is only like this that we can ensure that governments do not monopolise culture. I am afraid this is what is happening.”
Mallia added that the people heading the government organisations need to be made more accountable, as he asked why no action is being taken on allegations of serious lack of financial accountability when it comes to handing out funds.
Mallia’s questions echo stories by The Shift revealing that millions in funds by the Malta Tourism Authority being handed out to a select group of event organisers who were ‘friends‘ with Lionel Gerada, who took on the role of head of events at the MTA.
The organiser also pointed out the “ironic and sad” factor that a few days ago the National Statistics Office revealed that Maltese films only constitute 1.2% of the local box office.
“Shouldn’t the agency that is meant to exist to promote the legacy of V18 only be promoting European culture? Why are they not showing any European films? And why not promote Maltese film?” he asked.
Similarly, the cultural community in Malta reacted strongly to the news. Thomas Camilleri, an actor who has hosted the VFF event on two occasions, slammed Cinema City as a “poor attempt to fill (the) void” created by the lack of funds given to the original festival.
“The government should be supporting NGOs and foundations not actively undermining them and stifling all cultural entrepreneurship,” he told The Shift.
Toni Attard, who used to design numerous funding programmes in the public sector for cultural organisations like VFF to compete for regular funding also expressed shock, especially due to the current struggle of the independent arts sector brought about by the pandemic.
Attard believes that even if Cinema City is not meant to replace the film festival, the message it sends out at this point in time is “pretty significant”.
It is easy for the government to leverage its own institutions to organise events, therefore it is more challenging for one to encourage, work with and support a diverse and healthy arts environment where independent artists and cultural NGOs play an equal and active role, he said.
“At a time when global and local issues are changing the core of our society – from pandemics to climate change, from corruption to racism – arts and culture, and the role of the independent sector is crucial to keep democracy alive.”
“If a festival like the VFF, that truly embraced this challenge through its programming and work, is substituted with these events – then the film industry, our communities and the whole country will be missing out on the value such festivals provide to our society and the diversity they provide to our Capital City,” he said.
The Malta Producers Association expressed its disappointment saying that the festival has successfully put together a beautiful, well-respected and growing event that drew hundreds of people who appreciate the art and culture of world cinema.
“It is a sad day indeed when the State supplants the private sector and turns into the operator rather than nurturing and assisting the private sector to grow as is its remit. The Malta Producers Association deplores this muscling in and seeking to unfairly take control when the same organisations are supposed to exist to nourish independent cultural entrepreneurship.”
The Association also noted that the Tourism Minister and Film and the Malta Film Commission have time and money to organise free screenings of highly-commercial US films but no time to promote the production of local content.
“The association reminds the Malta Film Commission that half the year is soon gone and it has yet to inform producers if it will be launching any public calls under the Malta Film Fund.”
Festival-goer Sarah Chircop is one of the people who can vouch for the value of the event. Having been one of the 70 volunteers to help out every year, Chircop feels like this festival in the middle of the Mediterranean had just started to establish its unique identity as a cinema for small nations. She is now eager to continue fighting for its continuation.
This seems to be the attitude taken on by Mallia, who concluded that although the foundation believes that events like VFF should indeed receive public financial support, the lack of it will not stop the organisation from existing, and its aim is to continue organising the much-loved festival, along with other cinematic events.