23-06-2020

FESTIVALS: Lack of Public Funding Scuttles Valletta Film Festival 2020

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VALLETTA: The 2020 edition of the Valletta Film Festival (VFF), Malta’s first feature-length film festival aiming to showcase high-quality international works to local audiences, has been cancelled this year due to a lack of public funding. The news aroused controversy within the arts community in the European Union’s smallest member state.

VFF, founded in 2015 and organised by Film Grain Foundation (FGF), combined outdoor and indoor screenings of contemporary festival circuit films and classic works, with industry events, bringing together local and international filmmakers in a celebration of cinema on the island. The festival typically takes place in June.

In recent statements, FGF have confirmed that the Arts Council Malta (ACM), the festival’s main public funder, had decided not to renew their previous level of support. The VFF was initially given aid through the ACM’s Cultural Partnership Agreement, a three-year programme running 2017-2019, which was re-worked and became the Investment in Cultural Organisations (ICO) programme (2020-2022).

Instead, the ACM, together with the Valletta Cultural Agency, offered FGF an “ad hoc offer connected to the results of the call,” the Foundation said, which amounted to one-third of the amount requested. The festival organisers refused due to the difficulty in closing the financial gap in such a small market and argued that “if they [the ACM] have more money, then they should provide us the full amount we requested originally.”

FNE spoke with VFF co-founder Oliver Mallia, to find out what the festival set out to do, and what happens next.

FNE: What were the key achievements of the Valletta Film Festival over its five-year run?

Oliver Mallia: The VFF is the first national feature-length film festival in Malta organised by Film Grain Foundation (FGF), a non-governmental organisation.

Since 2015, FGF has organised five editions of the VFF, putting Malta on the international film festival circuit. In five years, the festival attracted over 50,000 patrons and showcased over 500 feature-length and short films at various outdoor and indoor venues around the island’s capital city.

Following several experiments in previous years, in 2019 the festival launched the Cinema of Small Nations Competition, a selection made up of films from small countries. This is a niche that the festival wishes to continue focusing on in coming years. The competition compliments the Valletta Film Lab - a training and development initiative also open to writers/directors and producers from small countries.

FNE: Why was the Valletta Film Festival important to the local Maltese film scene?

Oliver Mallia: Every year, the festival invited international filmmakers to the Maltese islands, with many attendees presenting their work to local audiences and film industry professionals through master classes, Q&As and workshops. Some of these included cinema heavyweights such as Roland Joffe, Peter Greenaway, Alan Parker, Agnieszka Holland, Liliana Cavani and Bela Tarr, as well as up and coming young directors like the D’Innocenzo brothers and Jayro Bustamante, to mention but a few.

This gave local filmmakers and film enthusiasts a chance to interact with, and learn from industry professionals of the highest calibre and network with international peers. The festival also served as a platform to showcase local productions as well as export Maltese films to other festivals through our attendance at international film markets.

FNE: FGF has issued a statement on the matter. When was funding pulled for the festival and was any reason given?

Oliver Mallia: We became aware that we would not receive the public funding required early on in the process. Even before submitting the application under the Investment for Cultural Organisations (ICO) call managed by Arts Council Malta, we had been warned by council officials that funding would be slashed, and this left us a little deflated and expectant of bad news.

We did not, however, expect that we would not get any funding whatsoever through the ICO, nor did we understand why this happened. When we received the news in December 2019, we were totally taken aback. A festival like VFF, in a small island like Malta, is hard to keep alive if left only to the fate of market forces. Despite the fact that only 30 per cent of the festival’s budget came from public funds, the support received from Arts Council Malta was crucial for the stability and continuity of the festival.

FNE: What does FGF hope the future will bring, with regards to the VFF?

Oliver Mallia: The core FGF team is as passionate about film and filmmaking as ever. Whether we will be able to pass on this infection (pun intended) to others does not depend entirely on us. For five years, we strived to build a good reputation and relationships with the private sector, flourished making this endeavour feasible.

With COVID-19 we have now, of course, lost a bit of momentum. We need to understand the impact of the virus on the events sector and rebuild. Of course, if there is ever a time that events require public support, it is now.

Nevertheless, we do not want or expect handouts. We do, however, expect to be offered an opportunity to put our expertise into action. We believe that this is even more relevant in today’s circumstances, when the very livelihoods of cultural workers are put under tremendous amount of stress.

We expect that, if there is a budget for cultural events, it should be offered to cultural entrepreneurs and professionals to devise a programme of events, and events should not be run by the state. We believe this will be a winning situation for everyone: the public who will get to enjoy a well curated programme, and the organisers who long to do what is in their bones - tickle the world with art in its many forms.