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Peter Sant • Director of Of Time and the Sea

“Filmmaking is almost an extension of colonialism”


- We sat down with Australian director Peter Sant, who broke down his Maltese-language feature debut, Of Time and the Sea, which screened at Valletta last week

Peter Sant  • Director of Of Time and the Sea

Australian director of Maltese heritage Peter Sant visited the Valletta Film Festival last week to present his pensive and mysterious Maltese-language feature debut, Of Time and the Sea [+see also:
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interview: Peter Sant
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, which initially premiered at last year’s FIDMarseille. We caught up with him to unpick the movie and find out more about its development and production process.

Cineuropa: Your career so far hasn’t been limited to just film. Could you give us an insight into your background?
Peter Sant:
I started out studying Fine Art at Slade in the UK. At that time, I was always working in moving image, but at Slade I was doing a lot of installations and video-art pieces. As I progressed, things became slightly more narrative-driven and purely for cinema, as opposed to a gallery setting. I never really worked from scripts; I worked more from concepts, so the feature was the first real script-driven thing that I did. Alex Vella Gera and I started writing it in 2014. The screenplay went through a lot of permutations, but it really came together when I found the location – that’s when everything fell into place.

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Was it easy working with a script in the Maltese language, which you’re not fluent in?
The script was written purely in English, and what I was very interested in was the whole translation process and how things change between languages. So it was written in English, translated to Maltese for the shoot, then ultimately translated back to English for the subtitles. So it’s a nice process where certain things happen along the way, and you kind of lose authorship.

How different were the audience reactions when you screened it at FIDMarseille and when you showed it in Malta?
At the Marseille screening, it’s safe to say that no one there had seen a Maltese film, so they found the language intriguing because people tend to pick up a few words in Arabic, which a large percentage of the language is based on. They also found the landscape intriguing, which for me was a very important part of the film because one of the motivations for me was this idea that Malta has appeared on countless screens all over the world, as it’s been used as a location for so many films – Midnight Express, Troy, Munich and so on – but has very rarely appeared as itself. So I wanted to continue that tradition. I really like this idea of the landscape being this “eternal elsewhere”, because it’s always doubling as somewhere else. So I continued that by making sure it remained nameless, and even the characters remain nameless. I play with that throughout the film.

It’s been described as an “experimental” movie – how would you respond to that label?
For me, “experimental” has almost become a genre in itself and has its own tropes, funnily enough. I wouldn’t call it experimental, but it lies somewhere between experimental and arthouse, definitely, and probably more towards the left-field end. There’s no doubt about that, but I don’t know if experimental is the right term – I mean, every film is experimental, right? You’d hope so. No one really knows what’s going to come out the other end.

Was it tough to get funding from the Malta Film Fund?
No, it was ok. They had a jury there who understood that it was arthouse, and my angle on it was really that a Maltese-language film is never going to get anywhere. In my eyes, it would have to be an arthouse film. I don’t think a Maltese-language romantic comedy is of much interest to many people, but maybe I’m wrong [laughs]! So I think there should be an allowance for that kind of voice here, as there should be everywhere. There should be a pathway for artists working in moving image and arthouse film. Although the jury was relatively conservative, they eventually agreed.

After having watched it for a year now since its premiere, do you see it and think about anything you would have done differently?
Yeah, inevitably there’s a lot I would have done differently, but I think that’s what keeps you motivated to do the next thing. I don’t think it’s even possible for me to just sit back and think everything is perfect every step of the way. As the director, you know the flaws better than anyone else. Things can be covered up and rectified by various means in the edit, but there wasn’t much of that.

What have you got in the pipeline?
I’m working on three or four shorts now. Some of them are being done by just me and a camera. Generally I tend to shoot here in Malta most of the time. One is a grant from the National Book Council here, which is an adaptation of a short story that we’re shooting in August. And I’m planning my next long-form work as well.

I always use the shorter ones as sketches for trying out new ideas and seeing which way I want to take things for the long-form works. Of Time and the Sea was an extension of my interests, conceptually, because a lot of the shorter, gallery-based films I made also centred on this idea of the mechanism of cinema. There was an Italian movie filmed in Malta called The Invention of Morel, based on an Argentinian novel, and it’s a film where these people relive one week of their life in a constant loop, fuelled by a projector, and that whole idea carried on to my film. What was interesting was that the location where that Italian film was shot was very close to where Robert Altman shot Popeye, and Popeye is now being re-enacted every day for the tourists on the set. So it’s like the idea behind The Invention of Morel somehow grafted its way onto the set of Altman’s Popeye, which is continuously played out day after day for the tourists. I found that really intriguing. So a short I did years ago was based on that whole idea of the two films colliding. You had a character who was based on the character from Morel and who was walking through the set of Popeye.

It’s a phenomenon that’s very interesting, and it also brings to mind traces of other things. Filmmaking is almost an extension of colonialism. It sounds a bit rash, but it’s like they come here and employ people in menial tasks, and they have a way of doing things that you have to abide by. Then they go home and leave all kinds of things behind. The Popeye set’s still there, and even now, if you go down to Marsa, there are boats from Gladiator. They all leave their traces behind, just like the Brits left their telephone boxes and their postboxes. So there’s a weird analogy and continuation there. That’s what inspires a lot of my thinking in films, and that’s why I like to shoot here. Malta itself has little to no local film history to speak of – so few features, it’s incredible. But to think that it’s been a part of the film industry for so many years… That’s what I find intriguing.

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