Searching for severe beauty | Peter Sant

Maltese-Australian director Peter Sant’s upcoming film Maneland appears to privilege location over narrative. He speaks to Teodor Reljic about what inspired this production

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Teodor Reljic
1 March 2017, 7:40am
Ruth Borg in Maneland (Photo: Michael Galea)
Ruth Borg in Maneland (Photo: Michael Galea)
With a synopsis that simply reads, ‘In a poisoned wasteland a crippled king and his two daughters cling desperately to illusions of normality as the world around them gradually gives up its secrets’, Maltese-Australian director Peter Sant’s upcoming film Maneland - a collaboration with novelist Alex Vella Gera - appears to privilege location over narrative.

What are the origins of Maneland? What did you want to express with this story, and how did you go about planning it out in the early stages?

I never really set out to express anything as such with the story, in fact the story itself is secondary. For me it was more an exploration of notions like absence and detachment. 

I originally approached Alex [Vella Gera] with a treatment for the film but it was basically a case of starting from scratch. We have known each other for quite a few years now so manners rarely got in the way. We continued writing and re-writing for the next four years and in the process tried near enough every possible permutation. For sure it’s all the better for it but nothing can compare to being on set with cast and seeing it come to life. That’s when a lot of what has been written and mulled over for months gets thrown out the window.

How would you describe your collaboration with Alex Vella Gera? What has that process been like? 

Painfully rewarding. Painful for him. Rewarding for me. Or should that be vice versa?

Ruth Borg and Narcy Calamatta (Photo: Michael Galea)
Ruth Borg and Narcy Calamatta (Photo: Michael Galea)
The landscape that features in the film is clearly of central importance, as is evident from the teaser trailer you’ve posted. Would you say it overwhelms the story (deliberately or otherwise)? And which particular aspects of the Maltese landscape do you find interesting to explore in your work, and why? 

Certainly, my intention was always to render the environment as more imposing than the characters. I found the Majjistral location very early on in the process in 2014, it has the severe beauty I was searching for and ended up informing the script immensely. Not having that in the first place really slowed down the writing process which makes sense as I have always found the location before embarking on a project. 

Of course, then I had to find an interior location for which I chose Fort Ricasoli. The history ingrained in Fort Ricasolli is obviously appealing but what was most interesting to me was how this real history is punctuated with an imaginary history. By this I mean that how the place is awash with left over props and crumbling film sets that mimic some other era that has nothing to do with the actual location. Again, these interests worked themselves into the script.

What have been some of the main challenges in putting together a project like this, both financial and otherwise?

We were extremely fortunate to be awarded the Malta Film Fund Development Grant in 2014 and the Production Grant in 2016. Without this support the project would never have got off the ground. Even with the grant, it wasn’t easy. Trying to make an unconventional film in Maltese was never going to seem like a lucrative venture to any investor. Many of the local potential patrons (i.e. bigwig companies) we approached have no real interest in arts and culture, some were after an advert, something that promotes Malta as a sun soaked idyllic holiday destination, but that is not the intention of the film. 

We had very few problems putting together a crew and everyone gave it their all, working with very limited resources and still delivered amazing results. I really couldn’t have asked for more.

Ruth Borg plays the lead role, alongside Narcy Calamatta and Mandy Mifsud. All the roles were very physically demanding due to the nature of the surroundings. Almost all the actions are domestic, or at best ritualistic; the characters had to appear rooted in the landscape but with a kind of measured detachment that allows the landscape to consume the frame. A frame where the weight of the land dominates in a sublime manner but without spectacle. Managing this very fine balance was by far my most difficult task on set.

Mandy Mifsud (Photo: Michael Galea)
Mandy Mifsud (Photo: Michael Galea)
What do you make of the Maltese film scene-cum-industry? What would you change about it? 

Malta’s film industry is still very much a blank canvas. It takes an age to establish a national cinematic identity. In fact, with everyone so globally connected these days I doubt it’s even possible. There’s a lot of opportunities in Malta in terms of short courses which I guess are necessary to learn the technical aspects required by the conventional industry standard approaches to filmmaking, if that’s what you’re aiming for. But when it comes to course on scriptwriting, I’m very dubious. I would never consider myself a scriptwriter: I find it a very unsatisfying process that has no real place in the type of films I want to make. But of course, they’re a necessary part of the process for most. You can learn every convention, formula or system you want in a week, but it’s almost impossible to unlearn. For me that has always been the most frightening thing. If I was to change anything about the industry in Malta it would be to wind back the clock and start it a hundred years ago. 

Shot on location at Fort Ricasoli and the Majjistral Park, Maneland’s cast includes Ruth Borg, Narcy Calamatta, Mandy Mifsud, John Zhang, Keith Joseph Barbara, Michael Tabone and Theresa Gauci. The film is scheduled for completion in July 2017, and is made possible by funds awarded by the Malta Film Fund. For more information and to see its trailer, log on to: http://hereonin.org/maneland.html 

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Teodor Reljic is MaltaToday's culture editor and film critic. He joined t...