‘Is this festival run by women?’ Why Burning Bikinis should fire us up!

The screening of Burning Bikinis (dir. Alessandro Tesei & Emmanuel Tut-Rah Farah) was drawing to a close on Pjazza San Ġorġ and a newly arrived Guillermo García López (dir. Frágil Equilibrio) was greeted by the fifth female VFF team member he had met in the space of five minutes. He smilingly quipped, ‘Is this festival run by women? It’s great!’ These words resonated yet more given their context – the film that had just screened was a bold and necessary documentation of the struggles for women’s rights on the Maltese islands since the 1960s. Such a film brought issues to the fore that often go undiscussed in Malta. The open-air screening in a Pjazza intersecting Triq ir-Repubblika, the road upon which two British bikini-clad women had reportedly caused outrage in the 1960s for their (lack of) attire, gave the film added meaning. It was this story and the urban legend that bikinis had been bought in bulk and publicly burnt in protest against the reactions of the Church and state to ‘public indecency’ sparked the making of this film. To now see one of the spaces that had been so germane to the development of this film, used not as a place of prejudice against the female body but rather as a celebration of it was a beautiful progression.

In answer to García López’s question – no, this festival is not exclusively run by women, but there are a hell of a lot of them working here and this festival is important because it provides a platform for women to express their stories openly and instigate potential change through both local and foreign narratives. The case of Malta is specific, not only as an archipelago measuring just 316 km², but also as a country where Catholicism is inextricably ingrained in the social, cultural and historical make-up. Burning Bikinis does a great job of weaving in the narrative of the Church alongside that of the women who played important roles in women’s rights movements on the islands. The extensive use of archive material gives both Maltese and foreign viewers alike an insight into the struggles women faced when fighting for their rights. However, we must remember that many of these struggles are still ongoing, with abortion still being illegal on the island and the country being rated last for the EU gender employment gap in 2016, with only 53.6 % of women in Malta aged 20-64 being employed (Eurostat figures, 2016). Neil Falzon, one of the founding members of the Additus foundation, which acted as a key sponsor of Burning Bikinis, reminds us that this film is intended to encourage the women of Malta to rise up again for their rights, to fight for equality and instigate legislative change that will directly impact current and future generations of women on the islands. The bikinis have been burnt, but what is next in the future of Maltese women’s rights – maybe we are the ones to write the next chapter!

Written by Melita Cameron Wood.

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