ROCHESTER, Minn. — By 12 years old, Alex Camilleri knew film would be his medium of choice.
Growing up in Rochester, Minn., he would "requisition the family video camera" for film projects with his friends. But it took years — and his own coming-of-age — to figure out how he wanted to use it.
"It was a very long process of finding my voice with a camera," he said recently by phone.
Camilleri, now 33, is ready to share that voice with a world-renowned audience. On Friday, Jan. 29, his first feature-length film, "LUZZU," debuts at the Sundance Film Festival, which will be mostly virtual this year due to the pandemic.
Although he'll be "attending" from his home base in New York, Camilleri will still have the opportunity to participate in a Q&A with the cast of "LUZZU" after its premiere on Friday afternoon.
The title comes from the word luzzu, a traditional fishing boat from the Maltese islands, where filming took place. Before starting the project, Camilleri had never been fishing, but Malta is in his blood.
The filmmaker is the son of Maltese immigrants, who still live in Rochester, and he spent much of his childhood traveling between Med City and the tiny island nation, where he still had extended family.
"We kept close ties with the island and tried to get back as often as we could," he said.
That "to and fro-ing," as he calls it, led him to the story he tells in "LUZZU," about a young fisherman named Jesmark (played by real-life fisherman — and nonactor! — Jesmark Scicluna).
"I've always had a familiarity and a great love for Malta, but I've always been an outsider," Camilleri said. "There’s a great sense of mystery about the place. Love and mystery are two really important ingredients to storytelling."
The film follows Jesmark as he risks everything by entering the country's black-market fishing industry to provide for his young family. Also starring are David Scicluna (Jesmark's real-life cousin and fishing partner) and actor Michela Farrugia as Jesmark's wife, Denise.
Camilleri calls it "a deeply personal film about the sacrifices families make for love and survival." Although it's set in the microcosm of traditional Maltese fishing, its themes will resonate with viewers all over the world, especially those who are immigrants.
It took years to cultivate the relationships needed to make a feature film with a documentary feel, but the final cast and script came together somewhat serendipitously.
Camilleri and his casting director met the Sciclunas the day before Camilleri was to return to New York, in a fishing hamlet in the south of Malta. They asked if they could go out in their boats and try a scene.
"I brought out my camcorder and asked them to improvise, and in an instant, it seemed like the whole film came together," Camilleri said. "At that moment, I knew I would have a film."
He described holding his camera "preciously," reviewing the footage on the flight back to New York. In a matter of months, he had rewritten the scripts to better suit the fishermen.
It was a big risk, not knowing whether they would be on board with it, but it paid off.
"Thankfully, they seemed to like me enough to let me stick around," Camilleri said.
The cast never even saw the script. Instead, the filmmaker and his small crew followed them around and shot "little documentaries" (which also allowed him to get his "sea legs"). Slowly, they became comfortable with the camera.
"That's a misconception about the role of the script," he explained. "You're looking to go beyond what's on the page. Every day on the set, you want to beat what's on the page."
"LUZZU" is unique not only in its neorealism. It's the first Maltese feature to compete in a major international film festival, and one of the few Maltese films that have ever been made. It's also in the dialect specific to the fishermen.
Camilleri hopes his heritage, his process, and his earnestness as a filmmaker speak to Mediterranean audiences, as well as audiences here in Rochester.
He did, after all, finish the film in his childhood bedroom in the Rochester home of his parents during the first year of the pandemic. Because of his editing background, he was able to cut it alone, on his laptop.
"The film really saved me," he said. "Bringing my first film to my literal stomping grounds — maybe somehow it was meant to be."
If you go
- What: Premiere of the film "LUZZU"
- When: Live public screening, followed by Q&A with filmmaker Alex Camilleri and his cast, at 2 p.m. Friday, Jan. 29; on-demand public screening at 9 a.m. Sunday, Jan. 31.
- Where: Virtual, available through festival.sundance.org.
- Cost: Single film tickets cost $15 and are available online at tickets.festival.sundance.org. Tickets are limited and are available on a first-come, first-served basis.
- More information: Learn more about the film on its Sundance page, fpg.festival.sundance.org/film-info/5fd030502885b85d899464f1.