By Herman Grech
Europe’s smallest capital – Valletta – is a conspicuous backdrop to some of Hollywood’s biggest blockbusters.
The Maltese city’s defensive bastion walls, stunning architecture and quaint narrow streets have hosted films including Munich, Gladiator and Midnight Express.
Built by Jean de La Valette, a Grand Master who steered a famous victory over the Ottomans in 1565, Valletta stands witness to a city steeped in a history of resilience.
Yet, despite being Malta’s main business centre, for decades Valletta was also one of the few European capitals that went quiet at night, the nightlife moving to nearby Sliema.
So when Valletta was awarded the title of European Capital of Culture for 2018 in 2012, the authorities realised it was a perfect opportunity to clean up the city and showcase its beauty.
“We have secured the biggest investment since Malta’s independence in 1964 to remodel this city,” Valletta 2018 Foundation chairman Jason Micallef told DPA.
More than 58 million dollars have been invested in the city since 2013, including 12 million in the cultural sector, funding the construction of a new museum and embellishment of Strait Street.
Culture in Malta has divided society. Many in the creative industry feel elbowed out by what they consider to be government appointees with no vision, more interested in investing in tired-old formulas.
Micallef disagrees: “Our year-long programme is designed to entertain, challenge and provoke – but above all, inspire.”
Around 1,000 local and international artists will contribute to Valletta 2018, which kicks off January 14.
The events will be held in diverse venues in order to rediscover the city’s historical spaces, Micallef explains.
“For centuries the city has welcomed the best minds from Europe. It has been called ‘home’ by some of the world’s best artists.”
Among the highlights is The Pageant of the Seas, where local communities take part in races on specially designed vessels in one of Europe’s most stunning harbours.
An opera season in the middle of the year will feature “Ahna Refugjati” (We are refugees), the work of Maltese composer Mario Sammut.
The Maltese are generally proud of the Valletta 2018 (V-18) title, but the organisation has not been spared controversy.
The appointment of Micallef – a former general secretary of the ruling Labour Party – was deemed by many as merely political.
And V-18’s executive director and programme co-ordinator were controversially dismissed just six months ago, prompting a stern warning from a European Commission panel.
Blogger Chris Gatt, also one of Malta’s top theatre directors, is categoric in his criticism of V-18: “It is evident that people in the higher echelons of the organisation were chosen not because of any inherent ability but because of their strong political connections.”
Despite increased funding for the arts, the quality left much to be desired, he told DPA.
“There has not been any concerted, focused effort to bring culture into everyday life, except through moments of tokenism and populism which may have caused more damage than good. Malta is a country whose default position is apathy,” he said.
Gatt said that while it seems residents are aware of the event, he suspected that, like all things cultural, V-18 is viewed by many as “something for tourists.” The year-long European Capital of Culture event is expected to generate a 7 per cent increase in tourism.
Ultimately, the timing of V-18 might be just right for Malta’s image after the barrage of negative publicity surrounding the murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia as well as claims of corruption and tax havens which have dogged the Mediterranean island. -DPA
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