SIMSHAR

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4 stars
Based on a real life tragedy that happened in 2008 and particularly relevant in the light of the current refugee crisis engulfing Europe, Rebecca Cremona’s Simshar is a not to be missed, compelling debut feature.
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It was selected as Malta’s first official entry for Best Foreign Language Film in this year’s Academy Awards. The tragedy skillfully parallels the plight of a group of fisherman shipwrecked in the middle of the Mediterranean - ignored because they are mistaken for a group of African refugees - and a Turkish merchant ship that rescued a boatload of North African asylum seekers from the sea between Malta and the Italian island of Lampedusa.

Using a gloriously idyllic opening shot, Chris Freilich’s camera captures the essence of the ‘Med’ in all its azure beauty, juxtaposing it with the multi-coloured fishing vessels bobbing on the waters of Valletta’s stunning port. We meet a disgruntled fisherman, Karmenu (Jim Busuttil), who is fed up with the authorities heavily policing his fishing catch. He considers the quotas set to be too low to make a living so he sets off on an illegal trip with his young son Theo (Adrian Ferrugia), who has always hankered to join his father on a fishing trip. The other crew members on this illicit voyage are the skipper Simon (Lotfi Abdelli), Karmenu’s father, and African immigrant Moussa (Sékouba Decouré). When disaster strikes and the Simshar catches fire far from its usual fishing territory, all four are forced to abandon ship in the middle of the ocean and are left adrift, exposed to the elements.

In the meantime, a Turkish merchant vessel has rescued a number of immigrants off a leaking boat. A Maltese doctor Alex (Mark Mifsud), who works at a migrant detention centre in Valletta, is sent to the ship to check on the unfortunate human cargo. Initially unsympathetic to their plight, it is only when a charismatic African refugee, Makeda (Laura Kpegli), challenges Alex’s thinking that he decides to stay and assist a pregnant woman who refuses to leave the vessel unless her brother is allowed to accompany her. This is a person who has lost everything and the thought of abandoning the last remnant of her previous life is simply too much for her to bear. She is, of course, symptomatic of the many others making this difficult journey. On the other side, the Maltese authorities are resisting taking in the refugees as they are already struggling with the numbers previously taken in. The issues raised in these scenes are very confronting and the performances of the cast are utterly believable, particularly the dialogue between Alex and Makeda, as they represent the opposing sides of the migrant/refugee crisis.

The parallel stories work in tandem and as the fisherman struggle to survive in the ocean, so too do the immigrants on board the Turkish ship. It makes for uncomfortable viewing, especially as we are currently witnessing the plight of thousands of refugees struggling to find a home somewhere in Europe after fleeing their war-torn countries. The fact that they are attempting to settle in places that are beset with problems of their own just adds to the misery. There are no winners here, as both sides are facing seemingly unsurmountable difficulties.

Simshar is a profoundly disturbing depiction of a reality that simply should not be happening in the 21st century. And yet it seems that it just escalates year upon year – this particular event happened seven years ago and the problem is still occurring. Australia had its own version of the story in 2001 with the Tampa affair and the ramifications of that are still being felt here, too. We can only hope that more films dealing with this immense problem are made to give faces and voices to those who are placed in a predicament that is simply too hideous for many of us to confront. We need to see the personal stories of those seeking refuge in the West to understand the problems they face. Simshar is an excellent place to start.

// SALT

Previewed at Sony Theatre, Sydney, on 16 September 2015
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STARRING
Lofti Abdelli
Jimi Busuttil
Adrian Ferrugia
Sékouba Doucouré
Clare Agius

DIRECTOR
Rebecca Cremona

SCREENWRITER
Rebecca Cremona
David Grech

COUNTRY
Malta

CLASSIFICATION
M

RUNTIME
101 minutes

AUSTRALIAN
RELEASE DATE
October 1, 2015
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Simshar (2014) on IMDb
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