Extras subjected to maltreatment during film shooting; ‘All safety measures were taken’ – local producer

Migrants working as film extras on an Italian production currently being shot at Rinella have been subjected to maltreatment, Newsbook.com.mt has learnt.

Sources who spoke to this newsroom said that migrants were subjected to long hours waiting in the scorching sun without accessibility to food and water, as well as not being given permission to leave the set to go to the toilet. However the various claims made were denied by local producer and former Malta Film Commissioner Engelbert Grech.

Migrants of African origin, the majority of whom are asylum seekers who live in Ħal Far, were recruited to work as extras on a comedy film by Italian director and comedian Checco Zalone. Two scenes are being filmed in Malta, one set in a prison and the other on boat.

Newsbook.com.mt is informed that there were a number of resignations over the way migrant extras were treated after having voiced their concerns of how migrants who are engaged to work on Tolo Tolo were not given toilet breaks or adequate shade.

Newsbook.com.mt spoke to Grech who denied any maltreatment and claimed that it is a one person’s fight against the production. Grech insisted that the local production company took care of the health and safety measures, and provided them with an adequate supply of water, sunscreen and shade. This however contrasted with what sources told Newsbook.com.mt, who explained that the Italian film crew drank water in front of migrants who were left thirsty for hours.

Grech insisted that many water points have been set up on set providing ice cold water. He added that there was food made available, and a vegetarian option was even provided to those who are currently fasting for Ramadan and did not want to eat meat. (Ramadan was over by June).

During the first day of filming, one of the migrants who was not allowed to go on a toilet break ended up urinating over himself. A source who spoke to Newsbook.com.mt said he witnessed this themselves. Grech, on the other hand, said that he was not informed of this incident.

Newsbook.com.mt is informed that among the migrants engaged as extras, there is a pregnant woman and a minor who is five years old.

Sources who spoke to Newsbook.com.mt expressed their concern over a scene which was meant to be filmed on a boat in a storm. On Monday, during a similar shot, the boat had some 65 people on board along with the crew, most of whom did not know how to swim. This went beyond the number of persons who should have been allowed on board, with sources expressing their deepest concerns saying that their lives might have been endangered, given that the extras could not swim and that the boat would not be strapped down.

Grech. on his part. insisted that the necessary studies and tests had been carried out in order to shoot this scene. He explained that less than 50 people would be allowed on board during Tuesday’s shooting. He further explained that no one was allowed to sit on the edge of the boat. The production’s health and safety officer explained that a team of professional divers was in the tank in case any of the extras went overboard.

Grech said that he was not aware that a pregnant woman was among the extras and since then, she had been removed from the film set and tasked with taking care of the migrant women’s children who are not working as extras.

Newsbook.com.mt is informed that the first assistant director Alessandro Pascuzzo was arrogant toward the extras and local crew, insulting them on multiple occasions and calling them names, among which “stupid idiots” and “scum”.

A migrant woman who protested that she was hungry, along with another woman who was concerned about her son’s safety, were allegedly fired on the spot when they voiced their concerns. However Grech categorically denied that the two women were fired on the spot insisting that they still worked for the production.

Sources have claimed that children were made to work for long hours, and on one occasion they worked until 2.00 am of the next day. The children were let off the set at 8.00 pm however were dragged back on set at around 10.  pm. The youngest of the child extras is a five-year-old.

In a separate incident involving the firing of guns, children were provided with earplugs. However sources said that the crew took away the earplugs leaving them crying. On his part, Grech insisted that everyone was provided with earplugs.

The Health and Safety Officer explained to Newsbook.com.mt that since tests were carried out and they showed that no earplugs were needed for the extras inside, the adults did not wear them. However children and those on the outside where the firing happened had to wear earplugs.

Sources also told Newsbook.com.mt that the creche for the children was not prepared until the second day of filming.

Prison scene

The prison scene was shot over three days during and involved a burning car. The extras, including a pregnant woman, were made to run within one metre of the car. According to the sources, firefighters were not close to the scene.

The local production company told Newsbook.com.mt that extras were asked to keep a safe distance from the burning car, adding that it was only natural that one did not approach fire. The health and safety officer added that if going into the fire was required, stunt-persons would have been asked in rather than extras. He added that the fire was a special effect and kept under control.

During the filming of the same scene, a sawdust machine was used, with dirt and sawdust being blown into the extras’ faces for a long time. It was only after an argument between the local team and the health and safety officer, that this was stopped.

The health and safety officer explained that although the sawdust machine used by the Italian assistant director was certified, he informed him that in Malta a water-based machine is used. He confirmed that he was called in to see what was going on and halted the production until this was revised.

Sources explained that the film producers paid no attention to the personal histories of the extras and of having probably passed through similar experiences when held in detention centers in Libya or when crossing over to Europe. Grech insisted that the extras were properly briefed, admitting that sometimes there were problems with communicating properly; however he explained that interpreters were on site. He added that health and safety officers had carried out the necessary tests and practised the scene prior to filming.

Grech insisted that they are not perfect as a company, however neither are they amateurs. Asked to confirm whether the migrants were treated properly, had access to water and given toilet breaks, he replied by saying, “one needs to be careful here, if what we are trying to say is that the extras determine on how the film is meant to be shot.” He added that it was a question of discipline. Grech insisted that one cannot tell the director how to go about shooting a film.

He added that certain scenes do not allow for a person to come and leave the set at will.

“We’ve employed them legally”

Grech explained that the recruitment process happened through JobsPlus’ Jobs Brokerage system. He added that the rates are good and that migrants were being taken care of.

He added that both Maltese and extras of African origin are being treated the same, including their wage. Grech said that he could not understand why suddenly there was all of this hullabaloo.

Grech insisted that the Italian production was a serious one with a ‘big’ budget at its disposal. He added that the migrants were not being exploited but had to follow the director’s instructions, saying that work involved contrasted greatly to being exploited on a farm or in the construction industry.

Grech denies any maltreatment

Grech said that he had signed a non-disclosure agreement with the Italian production company, and added that he had not read the script. He described the film industry as a very sensitive one.

Asked whether migrants or people of colour were maltreated, Grech said, “I don’t think so,” proceeding to invite Newsbook.com.mt on set to see for itself.

He explained that buffet breakfast and lunch were offered to the extras, along with free-flowing food and water from which they could help themselves without the need to ask for permission.

Grech said that he was aware that migrants could not swim however argued that all health and safety measures were in place. He explained that a maritime engineer had certified the vessel accordingly and the necessary tests had been carried out.

Grech insisted that everything was “100% above board”.

When asked about the children’s working hours, Grech claimed that a disgruntled worker had approached the media because they were interested in harming the production. He reiterated that it was not fair that because a person complained, then the whole production was ‘maltreating’ someone.

He insisted several times that all health and safety measures were taken, and that health and safety officers were present, along with the police and medics.

Producers’ association deeply concerned

The recently set up Malta Producers Association (MPA) said it was deeply concerned when it was made aware of the claims.

“The MPA strongly condemns any and all mistreatment of film crew, cast and extras and firmly encourages safe and ethical work practices as a fundamental principle on every production,” the MPA said to Newsbook.com.mt.

The MPA added that it has been requesting a meeting with the Film Commissioner for several months to address industry issues and matters of concern, but it had received no replies.