Malta’s first official entry for the Foreign Language Oscar is a topical and timely tale that puts a human face on the enormous tragedy of the boat people trying to escape their war torn homeland in Africa, hoping to find sanctuary and safety in Europe. It depicts the risks that the refugees are prepared to take in order to escape the violence and hostility and persecution back home. Hundreds have drowned while trying to reach safety, while many others have become pawns in cynical political posturing between Italy and Malta as to who bears the responsibility for the refugees. Malta lies in the Mediterranean Sea between Africa and Italy. Many refugees are housed in makeshift refugee village, but are also subject to abuse from local residents and fishermen who dislike sighting the leaky boats because of the pressure it puts on their industry.
In Simshar, we get two parallel stories that dovetail with devastating effect. A Turkish merchant ship is carrying a number of refugees it rescued, but it drifts at sea while awaiting permission to deliver its cargo. Alex (Mark Mifsud, from The Devil’s Double) is a Red Cross medical officer who reluctantly boards the ship to check on the health of the refugees, and is forced to stay to look after a heavily pregnant woman. Tensions slowly rise on the ship as negotiations between various authorities draw to a stalemate.
Meanwhile, local fisherman Simon (Tunisian comic Lofti Abdelli) is having trouble adjusting to the new regulations enforced by local policeman (Chrysander Agius) and he sets out on an illegal fishing trip to try and ensure his quota. The boat is a little dilapidated and probably unsafe. He is accompanied by his elderly father Karmenu (Jimi Busuttil), a veteran fisherman, his 13 year old son Theo (newcomer Adrian Farrugia) and Moussa (Sekouba Decoure), a former Somali refugee whom he has hired as an extra crewman. But the ship catches fire and sinks at sea, leaving the crew adrift on a makeshift raft. They drift while hoping to be rescued. But rescue efforts were delayed for numerous reasons, and the subsequent investigation into the tragedy had ramifications.
Inspired by actual events that occurred in 2008, Simshar is another harrowing tale of endurance and survival at sea, and is an incredibly harrowing and suspenseful journey. The script has been co written by David Grech, and it explores both sides of the controversial debate on refugees in nonjudgmental fashion.
Simshar marks the feature film debut for Maltese filmmaker Rebecca Cremona, whose short film Magdalene won the Directors’ Guild of America Prize. She handles the material with an almost documentary-like realism, and demonstrates a sense of compassion and humanity. The film itself should have great resonance and immediacy for Australian audiences.
As with other films like All Is Lost, Unbroken, etc, much of the action takes place on water and Cremona handles the ocean bound location effectively. Cremona shot the film both in the massive water tank that has been used on numerous big budget Hollywood productions, and on the Maltese islands over a period of 21 days, and this brings a sense of authenticity to the material.
Cremona draws superb and naturalistic performances from her small and largely unknown cast, who are effective in bringing some gut wrenching emotional heft to the material. Farrugia is heartbreaking as Theo, who is keen to experience his father’s world. Busuttil is a nonprofessional but he brings authenticity to his role as the veteran fisherman. Claire Agius is good as Sharin, Theo’s increasingly desperate mother and she captures her pain and distress as she awaits news on the fate of her seafaring family.
Visually the film is impressive. Chris Freilich’s awesome cinematography brings to life the beautiful scenery of Malta and captures the vast expanses of the Mediterranean. Ruben Zahra’s score is evocative and heightens the dramatic tension.
Director: Rebecca Cremona
Cast: Mark Mifsud, Lofti Abdelli, Chrysander Agius, Jimi Busuttil, Adrian Farrugia and Sekouba Decoure
Release Date: 22 October 2015 (limited)
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television