How did a Welsh cinematographer end up working on a film about Maltese independence?
Everyone dreams of making it at some point in their life. Be that being a rock star, winning the lottery, or appearing on the silver screen. For most, even if we dabble or otherwise commit to the arts, the dream remains stubbornly elusive.
Succeeding in any form of the arts takes substantial grit, talent, and often a private income while you make your name. While many have the grit and talent, precious few have the latter.
The working classes are therefore woefully under-represented at the top of the art world. Welsh cinematographer Keefa Chan, born in Cambodia and of Chinese descent, is now a most welcome exception to this tendency.
Having won a BAFTA Cymru for his work on the documentary The Fog Of Sex, he has now broken through internationally as the Director Of Photography on Davide Ferrario’s Blood On The Crown.
This film is due to be released in the UK this summer, and boasts an abundance of talent in front and behind the camera. Ferrario himself is an Italian director and novelist with a fabulous record of innovation and rare artistic sensibility. Blood On The Crown also has an Oscar winning producer in Roland Joffe (The Killing Fields, The Mission), and stars big-hitters Malcolm McDowell and Harvey Keitel.
Despite his obvious talent, it does beg the question of how Chan – who I first met when he was still doing the odd shift in his folk’s takeaway off the Corporation Road in Newport – found his way to working among these greats?
To begin, then, at the beginning. Chan talks of his first formative experiences of cinema. “My first childhood experience of the a crucial cultural experience of seeing an American film, I remember quite vividly as it was being in a dusty old smoky cinema in Phnom Penh.
“My father took me there, I was perhaps five to six years old. I don’t remember much, but the powerful frames and images from the screen burnt permanently into my mind.
“Of course I had no idea who any of the characters were or what it was all about, but the power and composition of the framing, the movement and poetry of the images, spoke to me.
“Much later in my life in the UK I tried to find out what the film was, as I had not forgotten the images. I came across it again, seeing it through the battered old panasonic CRT TV screen of my parents’ council house living room.
“It was Geronimo. A 1962 Technicolor Western film made by Levy-Gardner-Laven with Chuck Connors in the title role. As I grew up later in my teen years, I began to understand the power of cinematic image, and how they it alerts people’s perceptions.”
Chan also felt that he had synergy working with executive producer Roland Joffe on this project, after the director’s Killing Fields had a formative impact on his appreciation of film.
“Killing Fields was released in UK cinemas in 1984. This is the only time in my family’s history of cinema experience when my parents took myself (10), along with my two sisters (eight and 12 years old), to watch a film as a family. This is the only time we spent as a family going to the cinema.
“[Killing Fields] is not of course a family film. What they wanted to do was inform myself and my sisters of the importance of history. Why, and how we came to this country.
“The realism of the film had a very powerful impact on my life as I was growing up and had major influences on my journey as an artist through the craft of cinematography. I am forever grateful they put me through the experience of this film at an early stage of my life.”
This brings us to Blood On The Crown itself. The film is an exploration of the Maltese struggle for independence from the British Empire in the years following the First World War.
Films critical of the British Empire, especially in its smaller territories outside the US, India and Ireland, are thin on the ground. For example, if you google ‘Films about the British Empire’ the second film suggested is none other than Carry On Up the Khyber.
The story told by Blood On the Crown, initially known under the working title of Just Noise or Storbju in its native Maltese, had already been covered in Maltese television documentaries, but never in a film project.
The international production team secured funding for a bilingual retelling of the true events of the story. Finance was secured by a mix of Maltese, US, and Canadian investment. It is perhaps quite telling that despite British talent being heavily involved, the film is not backed by any British money.
In order for its story to be told effectively Blood On the Crown needed a string of solid performances from an ensemble cast, both Maltese and English speaking.
It explores the emerging Maltese revolution from multiple perspectives. Enthusiastic, angst-ridden, and idealistic teenagers. The middle class of doctors and teachers who provide the rhetoric and strategy. The political elite of Malta who are trying to balance diplomacy with non-violent direct action. British soldiers and police who are making tough and violent decisions on the front line. And their military leaders who must weigh loyalty to the crown with the real-politic of moral good governance of an increasingly impoverished and desperate population.
The film pulls no punches. While the chief antagonists are largely British, this is no Braveheart cartoon depiction. Even the most violent and cruel of the military have aspects of psychological empathy, some admittedly more so than others.
Keitel, scarcely recognisable, gives an agonising performance as the dignified governor in profound moral turpitude. “Will history judge us charitably?” he asks.
McDowell offsets a kind of psychopathic villainy (“We are the law”) with moments of heartbreaking grief. Ian Virgo (of Caldicot and LA, another Welsh comprehensive kid made good) gives a muscular, disconcerting, and oddly charming performance as the soldier without a heart of gold, but with a heart in there somewhere.
The Maltese cast give equally nuanced and powerful performances. Marc Cabourdin is the teacher cum seriously robust street leader who radicalises and bullies teenagers, while trying to avoid the almost inevitable bloodbath of direct confrontation. A strong female cast is led by Nicola Mangion depicting the vital, if under-dramatised, role of women in revolution.
Godwin Scerri plays the politician all marginalised communities need though too few get. Mikhail Basmadjian and Erica Muscat play the parents of a family just making do and trying to survive the injustice and chaos – drawn into events where they are forced to be the difference. The teenage cast are vulnerable and passionate.
While the film is big budget by standards of the Welsh film industry – this movie is low budget by Hollywood norms. Nevertheless it is poetically shot on location. Every shot seems to have a metaphor within it.
The film represents a powerful collaboration between director and technical team. Ferrario usually shoots his (award winning) films on just one camera. Embracing avante garde ‘anti-cinema’ values, working in front of rather than behind the camera. And while shooting on three cameras in this project the director exhibits an outstanding faith and trust in his crew – that a shared understanding of his literary and artistic vision will come to the fore, based on his deep comprehension of the script.
Ferrario provides a really penetrating textuality to the film, while Chan and the production team deliver the texturality.
The film itself was shot on location over just three months over just 29 days, with one week of technical prep. With a large cast of extras to boot, the narrative need for explosive and violent military set pieces, and a stellar cast who could only commit to being on set for a few weeks.
This is at least three to six months less shooting time by industry standards for a film with this budget . It is a notable cinematic achievement. Blood On the Crown is not only narratively coherent, but narratively resonant. It is visually exquisite. Flags are burnt, bombs thrown, people shot, but it never seems heavy handed.
The Maltese locations are stunning, with the light of the Mediterranean offset with the darkness of colonial oppression and working class toil. Chan makes some big calls as director of photography too, lighting some scenes with only lightbulbs and tinfoil (in the industry is known as blackwraps), instead of professional lighting rigs.
It’s bold stuff, and evidence that working on low/micro-budget productions is often the best school for suggesting innovative, creative, solutions.
All this brings us to how the film’s working-class Welsh cinematographer ended up working on an art house style movie with some of the biggest names in filmmaking on both sides of the Atlantic.
Chan has a long and trusted working relationship with local Maltese film producer/director Pedja Miletic within his production company Monolith Ltd. Together they have delivered many commercial projects for global brands and narrative feature projects to local and international markets. He is also a long time collaborator with Matt Camilerri Brown, who Chan brought as 1st AD (assistant director) for a local Maltese beer commercial in 2014.
After this project, Matt, who used to work in Wetherspoons, Newport to make the rent, was seduced by the Mediterranean life style and also literally fell in love with the local 2nd AD during the production – but that is the beginning of another story in itself.
As small nations that punch above their weight creatively, with their own language, Malta and Wales have much in common. On reading the script Chan could see class parallels between Wales and Malta – the themes of injustice, oppression, exploitations by the ruling elites, the industrialists, and the rich and powerful structural economic system.
Going back to his earliest childhood experience of the cinema, back in Cambodia, he understood the power cinematic images have on society. He wanted to use the craftmanship of cinematography to tell stories, producing images that give voice to those groups who have been victims of injustice and exploitations. And in doing so, inspire new generations of cinephiles.
The Empire’s official report into the atrocities that left numerous unarmed civilians dead, and over 100 interned to death in African concentration camps, was that the uprising in 1919, a mere few years before Maltese independence, was “just noise”. The working title for the movie.
Blood On The Crown should be seen by anyone who remains misty eyed about the British Empire, and conversely, anyone interested in radical change and revolution. It squares character exploration and storytelling with historical authenticity. It speaks to the pressures between personal morality and power, and how, whatever evasions you make in the course of your own life, history will find you, a side is picked for you.
None are innocent. None are blameless. But maybe, as Louis Macniece wrote in 1939 “it is better to act now than to be sure and to act in a hundred years, or a thousand, when your heart is pure”.