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Alex Camilleri, director
Memento Films International
94 minutes

Luzzu, directed by Alex Camilleri (Fahrenheit 451, Icarus), is the first film from Malta to be screened at Sundance and is among only a handful of films that have been made on the Mediterranean island. Local fishermen, most with no previous acting experience, make up the majority of the cast. The scripted film takes a narrative-driven approach to communicating how climate change and ocean overharvesting affect the economically disadvantaged, who bear the brunt of these global problems, combining documentary-like interactions and cinematography in a way that makes it difficult to remember that the film is a work of fiction.

Luzzu takes viewers into the lives of Jesmark, played by real-life fisherman and first-time actor Jesmark Scicluna, and his partner Denise, played by Michela Farrugia. When the couple’s baby is diagnosed with a costly health condition, Jesmark faces a harsh reality: Diminishing returns from a sea overexploited by industrial fishing have rendered traditional fishing methods aboard his heirloom luzzu fishing boat increasingly impractical as a means for supporting his family. We follow Jesmark as he struggles to maintain a grip on both his fishing legacy—which spans at least four generations—and the financial needs of his young family, ultimately giving up his beloved luzzu and finding employment with an illegal fishing enterprise that sidesteps fisheries regulations that he sees as punishing small-scale fishermen for the sins of industrial fishing operations.

Jesmark’s story of navigating uncharted waters highlights multiple paradoxes. Viewers learn, for example, about a program sponsored by the European Union that offers financial compensation to fishermen who decommission their vessels. The program, intended to facilitate sustainable ocean harvesting practices, appears to have had little effect on commercial fishing operations. By paying independent fishermen to give up their livelihoods, it has instead diminished small-scale, artisanal fishing. Meanwhile, Jesmark’s interactions with Uday, a migrant worker whose financial plight and murky residence status force him to engage in various illegal activities to get by, place the story in a broader, global context.

The film’s power lies in the empathy it engenders for the characters it portrays, especially for Jesmark, who feels like the underdog fighting against a system that disenfranchises familial custom in favor of profit. The narrative impressively interweaves relatable dichotomies of various flavors: tradition versus modernity, family obligation versus personal aspiration, financial stability versus career fulfillment, and nature versus industry. But, at its core, Luzzu provides a distinctive, personal glimpse into the human experience at the front lines of a major sustainability crisis that extends far beyond the shores of Malta.

About the author

Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Colorado Boulder, Boulder, CO 80309, USA