Far from a pristine house | Is-Suza, Stephanie Sant & Martin Bonnici

Oliver Friggieri’s haunting tale ‘Ir-Ragel Tal-Klieb’ will be getting a film adaptation courtesy of Shadeena Entertainment. Teodor Reljic speaks to the three creatives behind it – ‘Is-Suza’ (director), Stephanie Sant (writer) and Martin Bonnici (producer) 

Philip Mizzi and Maryann Muscat in Shadeena Entertainment’s adaptation of Ir-Ragel Tal-Klieb
Philip Mizzi and Maryann Muscat in Shadeena Entertainment’s adaptation of Ir-Ragel Tal-Klieb

The film is an adaptation of an Oliver Friggieri short story. Why did you choose this story in particular, and why did you think it would make for a good film adaptation?

Martin Bonnici: From my side, a couple of people approached me asking to produce this particular adaptation for them in the same year. It was quite surprising, but they all mentioned that the story had left a particular impact on them when they studied it for their Maltese O-Levels years before. The interest in adaptation was sparked by the annual competition held by the National Book Council and we kept looking for ways to make it happen, finally getting funds from the Malta Film Fund for the production.

Is-Suza: I remember being sat in class on an unremarkable day. Form 3: Maltese Class, first table on the left, right under the teacher’s nose (I always talked too much). Being Franco--Maltese, and speaking English or French at home, I always used to be scared to be called out to read aloud to the class. The teacher ‘Tal-¬Malti’ uncharacteristically read the story to us himself. It was clear he had some form of relationship with this text. The setup was perfect, and I was immediately hooked. It seized me and hasn’t let go yet, over a decade later. The mood was compelling, macabre and ominous, and the ending shocking and profound: I was there in the house with ‘Ragel’ and all the dogs.

The text loomed till I was informed of the Malta Film Commission initiative. ‘Ir¬-Ragel Tal-¬Klieb’ immediately and automatically sprung to mind. I had to make this picture! My background in painting is to work with chaos, and as I visualised scenes of different shapes of dogs moving about, I thought of exploring the medium of film through that story as it had the potential to be very expressive.

Stephanie Sant: With many meaningful relationships I have built over the years, ‘Ir-Raġel tal-Klieb’ has always been a topic of conversation whenever we reflected on stories that had truly disturbed us. As I reached the end of my Master’s course, I was in conversation with my two other collaborators on the film to work on a filmic adaptation of a Maltese story, and the three of us instinctively went for that. I recognize a depth within the story that goes beyond ‘dark’ or ‘morbid’. A depth that makes for a strong adaptation.

What approach did you take to adapting the story? Will you be making many changes to the source material, and will these changes be primarily narrative or stylistic?

Is-Suza: We did not intend to tame the story at all, but show it for what it is and express the morbid feeling. As we planned the filming we also explored actual complexes such as hoarding, as realistically, a man who hoards dogs would not live in a pristine house.

Sant: The screenplay remained close to the source material, but I added another prominent character – the adolescent girl. She is the last connection he has to society before he is (literally) consumed by his obsession. In general she stands for my own adolescence – and that of my co-writer – when we had studied the story. Like her, we were both fascinated by the man and his ‘dog-world’, while also being a little confused as to why so much of Maltese literature at the time was about dying, old age and misery.

Bonnici: I wasn’t particularly involved in the artistic direction of the project but I did keep an eye on the adaptation to ensure that while the necessary changes to accommodate the change in medium were made, we didn’t stray too far from the original text. One has to keep in mind that an adaptation is an interpretation of the source material by a new creative mind so obviously some changes were made.

What are some of the main challenges of a project of this kind? Are there significant dramatic – as well as logistical – hurdles that you need to overcome?

Bonnici: I think that this project had the perfect ingredients for a logistical nightmare but ultimately it all worked out well. This was the first large project by upcoming director Is-Suza, we had a lot of children on set for some of the scenes and we also had a lot of dogs. 

Each element brings with it different risks and challenges but the team really pulled through to make it a great experience. Is-Suza’s approach was very interesting and he directed the project with great attention to detail and a strong visual narrative. 

Francesca Mercieca, our production designer, had a tough time transforming the location into the hoarder’s home but also made sure that the transition is natural and beautiful on camera. With limited funding we also had limited time to get the production shot which meant four intense days. Even the dogs were getting tired by the end of it!

Is-Suza/Sant: The primary logistical hurdle was to find a home that appeared in good condition to live in and that would allow us to destroy it. We spent months looking for unconverted houses that would be knocked down anyway to be redecorated, so that we could work on the trajectory from clean house to hoarder’s peak.

Finding a dog trainer and the dogs was also challenging. One animal pound pulled out of the project out of fear of discouraging any elderly from adopting animals after reading the script. On set, handling the dogs was very difficult, especially in scenes where there were both numerous children and dogs involved, in a small space in the July heat. Within this setting we had to film the dogs doing certain actions within a tight schedule. There were also a lot of health hazards involved on set. We had props of rotting food that would give a realistic insight into a neglected kitchen.

Do you think that more of an effort should be made to establish a solid repertoire of Maltese literature adaptations? What do you think the overall effect would be, of having a good number of such films out there?

Bonnici: Definitely! Malta may not have a history of film but original literature and theatre has been around for a long time and there are some gems out there – both classical and contemporary. The National Book Council’s annual competition is a great way to get more filmmakers looking into adapting literary works and I think it should be encouraged on all fronts. Adaptation is not only important from a cultural perspective but it also helps fast-track the development since the years authors put into their work means the film starts from solid ground.

Sant: At this stage, I would welcome any form of efforts into making anything. Anything! As long as they are made with an open mind that welcomes criticism and engages in dialogue in order to better themselves. 

What do you make of the local film production industry? What would you change about it? 

Bonnici: Everything. I feel the sector has been stagnant over the past decade and while many are trying hard to establish strong structures for the development of the sector, too much attention is still being placed on tourism and servicing. I think that more producers need to take a more business-like approach to the work and talents need to stop working for free for commercial projects such as films and TV shows. As a nation we need to produce more projects that support creative talent, establish a healthy economy for the industry and then find the support needed to create art. 

Is-Suza: Stop showing churches. Stop showing luzzu. Start realising the true potential that lies within us all. Malta has a future, not just a past. 

Sant: Any emerging and aspiring filmmaker should strive to raise awareness on recurring issues within their film project. Issues like the problem of the male gaze on cinema, and the lack of women within the primary film crew, and the constant threat of censorship to stories. It is 2017 and there are still local and international hiccups when it comes to, for example gender roles in advertising. Film is a strong medium and it should be handled intelligently and used to draw empathy and make the viewer more aware of their surrounding world.

Ir-Ragel tal-Klieb is supported by the Malta Film Fund. The film will be screened in 2018.