The Malta Independent 5 August 2020, Wednesday

Spontaneity and celebration is what Carnival is all about

Karl Azzopardi Sunday, 23 February 2020, 11:30 Last update: about 6 months ago

It takes a group of dedicated and hardworking individuals to build a Carnival float that delivers a clear message on the importance of maintaining this timeless tradition. Every company has its own way of communicating this message, be it through political satire or a whimsical interpretation of an all-time favourite movie.

This year, the Beqqu and Stiefnu Carnival Company has chosen to display its love for Carnival through an all-round production inspired by the live-action rendition of Disney’s Aladdin, which was released last May.

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The Malta Independent on Sunday spoke to one of the leading members of the company, Stephen De Battista, who described the vision behind their decision, while highlighting what Carnival truly stands for.

Beqqu and Stiefnu Carnival Company through the ages

Stephen’s love of Carnival began at a very early age, when he worked closely with Paul Curmi – who is renowned for his Carnival productions in Malta – and his passion has never faltered.

“When my cousin Paul Chircop (the other leading member of the company) and I were young we used to go to Paul Curmi's warehouse in Valletta, which was a church close to where my grandmother used to live. Seeing a church from the outside and then an explosion of colours and floats inside was something that left a mark on me as a child, and that is where my love for Carnival started,” Stephen told this newsroom.

After years of helping Paul Curmi, Paul Chircop took it upon himself to create a float under his name for the Triumphal competition back in 2001 and Stephen helped him through it all.

Stephen explained that there are two types of Carnival competitions: the Triumphal section and the Carnival Company section. The former is based on a float by itself while the latter takes into consideration three categories: float, dance and costumes.

Asked which section he prefers to participate in, he said that his fascination with floats has always swayed him towards the Triumphal competition. “However, the Carnival Company competition is beautiful in its own way, since you are always surrounded by people and having a few extra helpers throughout the preparation process doesn’t hurt either.”

Following their 2001 entry, Paul and Stephen worked on a number of other floats and company productions together, while also working for different companies.  It was not until last year that that they decided to officially come together under the name Beqqu and Stiefnu Carnival Company in order to take part in the Carnival Company section.

Asked what motivated them to choose Aladdin as their main theme this year, Stephen explained that they decided to opt for an oriental theme and, coincidentally, the live-action film Aladdin had just come out.

Photos Alenka Falzon

“As we watched the film’s trailer, we became excited about everything that we could do with this theme with regard to all the three categories of the competition. When it comes to Carnival Company competitions, this is vital, as you need to find something that encompasses all three categories. In this case, Aladdin was perfect. I fell in love with it and we immediately began sketching.”

As he opened up his prismatic sketch of this year’s float, Stephen told this newsroom that a sketch is always needed in order to present it to Festivals Malta for assessment.

The sketch is made to scale and plays an important role in the construction of each element of the float. Nevertheless, elements are bound to change along the way as the sketch is based on imagination. 

This year, the float is about the size of a storage container, being 32 feet long, 20 foot high and 12 foot wide and 15 people have worked on it. Stephen said that there is a mix of skill level and skillsets in the team. “We have people who are technical professionals or work in an artistic field, such as myself, as I work in graphic design and art. On the other hand, we have helpers whose jobs are unrelated to what we do here, but Carnival is made up of people with different traits.”

Carnival in Malta

With the recent controversy about a particular Carnival float, Jude’s Hell, that raised some eyebrows due to its interpretation of the Archbishop of Malta and St Joseph House, it was only natural to ask for the opinion of a Carnival connoisseur such as Stephen.

“I think the media abused it a bit,” he said. “Satire is important, and I think that Carnival in Malta has a problem with communicating stories regarding our country’s current affairs.”

Stephen  referred to the Carnival floats that are displayed in Viareggio, Italy, to explain this point further, as the floats there are known for their political satire and often make reference to well-known figures such as Silvio Berlusconi and the Pope. “If anything controversial happens in the months leading up to Carnival, companies pick up on it and build a story around it through their floats.

“Political stories like these are not something one finds in Malta. However, a new type of satire has been introduced in Malta wherein if you make use of political satire you cannot solely target a person from one party or another. For example, if you use a Labour Party member, you have to also include a member of the Nationalist Party so that there is a balance,” said Stephen.

 

He thinks that this is a ridiculous concept because there is nothing wrong with building a float around some wrongdoing of which a politician might be accused. “At the end of the day”, he pointed out, “if you don’t come across a particular story through a float, you will still come across it in the news or on social media.”

Stephen said that this also applies to the Jude’s Hell float as it was not necessarily targeting the Archbishop of Malta, seeing that the figure was not an exact replica of him. “Additionally, there is nothing wrong with the float that gives rise to a dialogue about something which is part of our reality”, he said.

In support of his argument, he used one of Jacques Tilly’s floats in Düsseldorf, Germany, which depicted a bishop with a child sitting on his lap, accompanied by the phrase: For us, every day is an International Youth Day. “There are a number of cases in Germany concerning priests and paedophilia. With this float, the artist shed light on the reality of his country’s situation. In fact, it encouraged people to support any victims of such abuse. At the end of the day, if your work creates mobility where it is needed, there is nothing wrong with it,” he added.

Having said that, Stephen explained that we should not go to the other extreme where all the floats are political, as we are already bombarded with politics all year round and Carnival should not be just about that.

He believes that Carnival is all about celebrating in a spontaneous way but, unfortunately, spontaneity is lacking at the time being.

“Nowadays, people just buy a ready-made costume for their children. When I was a little boy, I remember grabbing some make-up and making myself look like an old man, wrinkles and all.”

He speculated that such spontaneity in Malta might have been moved to Nadur in Gozo, where it is still very much alive. “It is as if people want to go to a place where no one knows them to dress-up, drink and celebrate. This is not the case in Valletta, possibly because Carnival there attracts families and children.”

The Malta Independent on Sunday asked Stephen what concerns him most during Carnival and his reply was one of genuine worry regarding the future of Carnival. “At our warehouse, we are a family that works and has fun in the process. It scares me to think that there might come a time when the motivation for Carnival starts to dwindle.”

He went on to say that, when it comes to anything that relates to culture, there is a lack of financial support and, as a result, manpower will continue going down.

Asked if more investment in Carnival is needed, Stephen said: “I think they are investing a lot of money in it and they are doing a good job with it, especially Festivals Malta. In the past three years we have seen a huge shift in the promotion of Carnival, which was very much needed.”

He is hopeful that there may come a time when more money will be invested, especially if Carnival is viewed from the touristic perspective. “The government would be crazy not to invest in such an option, considering the success that Carnival festivals abroad have, such as in Viareggio in Italy.

“There are many tourists who come to Malta for Carnival but I don’t think there is enough integration of tourism in our festival. We enjoy seeing tourists dancing and celebrating with us and I think that that is what Carnival should be about.”

 

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