When it comes to pioneering women in cinema, Rebecca Cremona’s name is barely whispered. But what this filmmaker from Malta has already achieved is near extraordinary. She made her debut feature in a country with no indigenous film industry; she tells a story of global significance on a limited budget, after a gruelling pre-production period of over seven years; and she shot the whole thing on the water, a feat that nearly killed cinematic titans like James Cameron and Steven Spielberg.
Crossing the stories of a downed-and-drifting Maltese shipping boat with a group of illegal immigrants caught in a diplomatic tug-of-war, Cremona’s taut and emotionally involving 2014 drama Simshar is a bravura piece of cinema. To say that the film was made against the odds is an understatement. “There is a very fine line between courage and stupidity,” Cremona laughed to FilmInk in 2014. “There are a lot of issues when you don’t have an indigenous industry. There is no infrastructure, and there are no provisions in place. There are huge logistical issues. There aren’t really Maltese films, just a few incidences here and there. When there’s a Maltese film in the cinema here, it’s not really a film. When a Maltese TV show does their final episode, they’ll air it in the cinema. It’s not film, and there’s been nothing distributed outside of Malta.”
That’s not to say, however, that films aren’t made in Malta…they just happen to be international productions like Gladiator and Troy. It’s within Malta’s local filmmaking “servicing industry” that Cremona learned the skills that she so stunningly showcases in Simshar. “We speak English, and we don’t have security issues like, say, parts of Africa do, and the distances are very small,” Cremona told FilmInk of the shooting appeal of Malta, which is located just off the coast of Southern Europe. “You have a group of Maltese film professionals working on these international films. But they’re not making their own films or telling their own stories. I’m a complete cinephile, and I’m completely obsessed with film. It was a natural progression to want to start making films myself. I studied film in the UK and the US, and then worked in the servicing industry here in Malta. But I’ve always wanted to make my own films.”
Did Cremona find any obstacles as a woman in getting the film made? “I don’t mind telling you, I’m 31,” the director smiled in 2014. “I wouldn’t say that being a woman was an issue, at least not to my face. I’m not aware that it created any obstacles at all. The fact that we were trying to make a Maltese film was so out there that the fact that I was a woman was secondary. That paled in comparison. This story really hooked me when I saw that it could be linked to universal themes. I love many different kinds of films, but the ones that really made me want to become a filmmaker are the ones that tell universal stories, but from a localised starting point. I like stories that are so specific that you can put all the beautiful intricacies of a culture on the screen, but where you can also tap into something universal, and hopefully audiences will respond to that no matter where they are in the world. That’s the sort of story that I would like to tell. And I felt that there was potential in this story to do that. But, oh my god! They say that you shouldn’t shoot on water, you shouldn’t shoot with animals, and you shouldn’t shoot with children. And what did I do? I did all three on my first feature! This is what I mean about stupidity and courage. It’s a fine line!”
A great success in Malta – where the film played in cinemas for six months, and was seen by a whopping 10% of the population – the director was optimistic about how the good cinematic ship, Simshar, would sail internationally. “We’re getting to a point where I hope that the film has some avenues now,” Cremona told FilmInk in 2014. “It will live a bit on its own. It’s like when you have a baby and they start to walk. We’re at that precipice right now. Getting the film out there was much harder than I estimated, especially coming from a country with no indigenous filmmaking industry. But on the positive side of that, no one knows what a Maltese film is because we’re still in the process of building up that tradition. Still, that was very hard, but there have been good things come of this. I now have a manager in the states, and he’s sending me lots of interesting projects. I also have lots of projects in Malta that I’d like to develop, but those will take many years. I would like to make another film before another seven years pass! It will never be easy, but I hope that my next film will be slightly easier to make than Simshar!”
Very, very sadly, the gifted Rebecca Cremona is yet to follow up her superb 2014 debut, one of way too many examples of a fine female filmmaker unable to find the support and financial backing that her talent so richly deserves. We’ve argued before for the right of a director to be labelled an auteur after just one movie, and with the singularly powerful and pioneering Simshar, we’ll happily argue it again…
If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs Stephen Hopkins, Tony Bill, Sarah Gavron, Martin Davidson, Fran Rubel Kuzui, Elliot Silverstein, Liz Garbus, Victor Fleming, Barbara Peeters, Robert Benton, Lynn Shelton, Tom Gries, Randa Haines, Leslie H. Martinson, Nancy Kelly, Paul Newman, Brett Haley, Lynne Ramsay, Vernon Zimmerman, Lisa Cholodenko, Robert Greenwald, Phyllida Lloyd, Milton Katselas, Karyn Kusama, Seijun Suzuki, Albert Pyun, Cherie Nowlan, Steve Binder, Jack Cardiff, Anne Fletcher, Bobcat Goldthwait, Donna Deitch, Frank Pierson, Ann Turner, Jerry Schatzberg, Antonia Bird, Jack Smight, Marielle Heller, James Glickenhaus, Euzhan Palcy, Bill L. Norton, Larysa Kondracki, Mel Stuart, Nanette Burstein, George Armitage, Mary Lambert, James Foley, Lewis John Carlino, Debra Granik, Taylor Sheridan, Laurie Collyer, Jay Roach, Barbara Kopple, John D. Hancock, Sara Colangelo, Michael Lindsay-Hogg, Joyce Chopra, Mike Newell, Gina Prince-Bythewood, John Lee Hancock, Allison Anders, Daniel Petrie Sr., Katt Shea, Frank Perry, Amy Holden Jones, Stuart Rosenberg, Penelope Spheeris, Charles B. Pierce, Tamra Davis, Norman Taurog, Jennifer Lee, Paul Wendkos, Marisa Silver, John Mackenzie, Ida Lupino, John V. Soto, Martha Coolidge, Peter Hyams, Tim Hunter, Stephanie Rothman, Betty Thomas, John Flynn, Lizzie Borden, Lionel Jeffries, Lexi Alexander, Alkinos Tsilimidos, Stewart Raffill, Lamont Johnson, Maggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins.