Dear Dumb?

Sitting around a table with a group of people reminescing times past is an experience that we have all gone through some time or another. I have fond memories of a parapett in Gozo that in its heyday served as a stopping point for many an ambler enjoying the summery nights of Marsalforn. Stories, rumours and recollections are part of any social fabric and their role is highlighted on a rock of a few kilometres squared inhabited by nigh half a million souls.

Among the stories that I picked up in my childhood I was always most fascinated by the accounts of the deeds and misdeeds of Mintoff and Mintoffianism. In post-war lore I believe you could equate the standard of this kind of story with that of the deeds of Arthur and his knights or those of Robin Hood and his merry band. Obviously there was less myth and much more fact in the accounts of Mintoffian errantry or socialist theft in the name of the poor, but the personal timbre and impression given by whoever took the baton of chief raconteur was just as manifest as it was inevitable.

Mintoff’s effect on the social, political and even physical lanscape of these islands is an indelible mark left by a trailblazing meteor that rose from the ashes of war torn Malta, blazed through the puberty of a nation in search of an identity and then erratically stuttered to a shaky stop in its twilight years. The Mintoffian stamp on Maltese society spans six decades and can hardly be reduced to a one hour overview.

Every step from the post-war rise within (and without) the ranks of Labour to the epic battles with the powers colonial and ecclesiastic would require contextual analysis based on a multidimensional perspective of the politician and his deeds. It is not a sense of partisan justice that underlies this requirement for rigorous analysis but a the historical paradigms of contextuality and clarity – as far as they could possibly be achieved.

Falkun Films have pulled off a magnificent feat of marketing by managing to tap into the vein of curious controversy that is the main selling point of any current affairs item in Malta. “Dear Dom” has hit the airwaves and the opinion columns in full force and the Maltese buzz is out doing what it does best – a concoction of summary exectutions, intransigent condemnations and unreserved plaudits delivered by a mixture of consenting viewers and disdained abstainers alike. In doing so, Falkun Films and Pierre Ellul proved one important point even before the cinema tickets were sold: Dom Mintoff is still hot stuff.

I wanted to reserve my judgement to when I witnessed what the movie had to offer with my own eyes and I finally got to see the film on Easter Sunday. A fitting date, many would opine, to see the return of the saviour before the eyes of his people. Waiting in the ante-chamber at the cinemas someone remarked that they could not fathom why some would choose not to watch the movie… “At least you could learn something”. That, I think is one of the main points here. Is “Dear Dom” a documentary? Does it have any educational value?

Or was “Dear Dom” after all the latest in a long line of attempts at destroying the hero-factor that the name Mintoff still carries on? Was the man worshipped by our Leader of Opposition (by his own admission) being dismantled in a new medium of local propaganda?

You do not need to sit through the full hour of Dear Dom to notice that there is nothing documentary-like about the movie. The monotonous narration reads like a long j’accuse from the beginning to an end (not this J’accuse). Intentions, motives and nefarious plans are imputed without missing a beat. What is missing is the facts that back the assertions. Sure, many sitting in the theatre – especially those who have brushed up their history lessons – would know the background to the interdett, the obsession with integration, the swing to separation from the UK, the control economy, the battle with the church and more.

I did ask myself however – what would someone who had never heard of Mintoff and his story make of this film? Not much I’m afraid. The film depends on a priori knowledge and relies strongly on preconceptions. It taps into the narrative that has been woven in the parapetti, the pjazez and the kitchens of the nation. You enter the cinema armed with your idea of Mintoff and walk out nodding or shaking your head – not because you have been given a theory based on historical investigation but because the film has touched upon those nerves that have been lying dormant for a while and you’ve risen to the provocation.

If you have none of those preconceptions you are probably still wondering who the interviewees are, you are probably asking more questions about the relationship between Mintoff and the Church, between Mintoff and the English, between Mintoff and the Nationalist party. You’re probably dying to find out what makes the torch of Mintoffianism still burn to this day and why his many followers are reluctant to shed his heritage.

The magnificent and purposely charged typographic shifts from one scene to the next will have done little to satisfy your justifiable curiousity and the motley band of interviewees might only have served to give you a tiny fraction of the impact of Dom on Maltese lives and Maltese life. Artistically I would dare say that Dear Dom is an emotionally charged “skizz” or “makkjetta“. In sharp contrast to the documentary portrait that one expects but that it is not, “Dear Dom” is a cross between a caricature, a parody and a picassian esquisse that has evident limits in both time and space.

Which is why J’accuse firmly believes that the film is a must watch. It is a must watch because we need this kind of provocation. It is a must watch because if it is true that we shy away from controversy and from dealing with our heroes (maybe thanks to the censors in our head) then any start is a good start. It is a must watch because notwithstanding the shortcomings and failings on a historical level therein lies a wealth of visual retro-porn that is awaiting the history fetishist.

I must admit that I sighed with that twisted sense of oxymoronic nostalgia for an era that I hope will never return when I saw the rows of Sanga (or was it Soldini) shoes in a factory. The short tourism ads and clips that were sampled included such wonders as the old Hilton and Gozo’s Hotel Calypso. The library of reels picturing Mintoff in various negotiating moments are also a jewel that should be preserved – hopefully for a deeper, longer and more purposive analysis that is waiting to be made.

Dear Dom is not and could never be the only source of the controversy that has dominated the scene over the Easter break. Yana Mintoff will secretly see the movie as a godsend as it has given her some popularity (notoriety?) points and drawn the media to an otherwise bland latecoming hopeful to the political scene. The naysayers who wouldn’t watch the film (and still judged it) proved that the controversy has nothing to do with any movie or its content but simply with the fact (and probably the fear) that the man elevated to hero status was being brought back into the limelight. The fact remains – Mintoff and all things Mintoffian is a recipe for controversy… even in 2012.

A recently uploaded episode of “kwartakollox” on youtube dealt with Mintoff and seemed to have kicked off on a much better track than the Dear Dom movie – ironically it took a quarter of the time. Dear Dom got much more attention than a one hour edited series of clips and photos with a voiceover plus some great typography deserved. Had it not made it to the cinemas and had there not been any well timed marketing leading to controversy it would not have caused such a stir among those who might have got down to watching it.

Rather than binning Dear Dom we can only hope that more effort is put into this kind of production. More effort could bring more perspectives, more angles and more history being put under the lens. Our young nation needs this kind of effort. So do the artists and historians who have for too long been operating under a system of self-imposed censorship.

And after that? Well, after that… the world goes on.

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