Entering the Pomegranate House | Manuel Xuereb

Ahead of showcasing a short film adaptation of Pierre J. Mejak’s nostalgic tribute to the Gozo of his youth, we speak to young producer and filmmaker Manuel Xuereb, who together with co-producer and director Federico Chini set about adapting Mejlak’s short story ‘Dar ir-Rummien’, which will premiere at this year’s edition of the National Book Festival

Manuel Xuereb on the set of ‘Dar ir-Rummien’
Manuel Xuereb on the set of ‘Dar ir-Rummien’

How would you describe your background in filmmaking so far? What led you to pursue this discipline?

I feel as though I entered this industry by mistake. One summer, during my holidays, a friend of mine, Micheal Tabone, involved me in a production house, named Three Generations Down. We prepared to shoot a big scene at Astra Theater. Closing down the Republic Street in Victoria, Gozo. With a group of Gozitans, we coordinated a police car chase and a bank robbery scene. While having at least 100 extras on set. All this was done on a voluntary basis.

A year after, I met Federico Chini, during the meetings of this same production house. And a month later I found myself as a costume runner with Pellikola at Angelina Jolie’s By the Sea... an experience which to this day still feels like a dream. Transporting clothes, passing from the confusing Xewkija streets which I knew by heart since I was raised in the area, and ultimately, working with a superbly experienced foreign costume team.

After that, Federico Chini asked me to be the main actor for a short he directed named ‘Greater Ground’. Then seeing his capabilities first-hand; I pushed forward (as a co-producer) to apply for the National Book Council-PBS short film competition.

What led you to adapt this story in particular?

We picked this story because it had a sense of sweetness in it and a large target audience. More importantly it wasn’t complicated to make it into film, financially speaking. What also attracted me was Pierre J. Mejlak’s way of telling a story: it demands your attention and keeps you wanting more.

Was the Gozo setting of the story instrumental in your decision to adapt it? And how did you set about depicting Gozo in the film? Which ‘sides’ of the island did you want to bring out in particular?
The Gozo setting was very instrumental. The author is Gozitan, the actors are Gozitan and the setting of the story cries out, “Gozo”. Besides, the island has a certain charm since it has not been fully tarnished by the waves of ‘progress’. We revealed several beautiful sides of Gozo, which made me yearn for a longer story to tell – to spend more time in that particular creative space.

What were some of the key challenges of the production, and how did you set about circumventing them?

The main challenge was how to handle the budget. ‘Greater Ground’ was on an even lower scale budget. It gave us a first-hand budget management experience. However primarily the challenge was how to change a prose story into a film script. It was a combined effort between my energy and Federico’s guidance that led to a finalised script, which kept evolving till even post-production stages.

We also set a target from the beginning to pay everyone who was involved. A lot of the actors did not even expect to be paid, since they wanted the opportunity and the exposure. On the other hand, the most fun was during filming: assisting our DOP Joseph Cremona, assisting Federico, the actors and working as a team with our MCAST interns and the rest of the crew.

How much of what you applied during the production of this film, did you learn from the educational system, and how much of it did you learn ‘on the job’? Would you change anything about the way filmmaking is taught in Malta? Would you say there are enough resources at hand for up-and-coming filmmakers on the island?

I myself have never taken any film courses. My background is a degree in political science at the University of Toronto. But I do understand, through my experience, the power dynamics in film and have learned to respect the specialised roles the film industry is based on.

Concerning the way filmmaking is taught in Malta, currently the Malta Film Commission is developing a national policy that will handle that issue.

In my opinion people who want to enter this industry should start gaining experience by taking up opportunities. Whatever they are: from internships to courses. Everything in this diverse industry makes you competitive.   

Regarding resources for up-and-coming filmmakers on Gozo: there is a growing talented group of people, who vary in their experience and are waiting for the opportunity, same as I was. All they have to do is try to be active and take it.   

‘Dar ir-Rummien’ (The Pomegranate House) will be screened on November 7, 20:00 at the National Book Festival, Fort St Elmo, Valletta


The author speaks out

We asked Pierre Mejlak, the award-winning author of ‘Dar ir-Rummien’ how he feels about his short story being adapted onto the screen

“I think many writers are delighted when their work inspires others to create something based upon it. When Federico Chini e-mailed me some months ago and asked for my permission to create a short film inspired by “The Pomegranate House”, I was quite intrigued and curious to see how he would interpret my story and where he would take it. As a foreigner living in Gozo I felt Federico was well-placed to retell my story.

During the same period, another short story of mine – I want to call out to Samirah – was being adapted to the stage by Albert Marshall, Renzo Spiteri and Mavin Khoo (to be performed in Frankfurt next month), and so I was in quite an unusual position seeing two of my stories evolving in different ways.

I look forward to seeing the final result of Federico’s work in the coming weeks. I’m happy he was given this opportunity and I hope we’ll see more of his work in the future.”