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PETER SANT Talks About His Arthouse Film OF TIME AND THE SEA (BAĦAR ŻMIEN)

BAĦAR ŻMIEN (Of Time And The Sea) is a film about a stasis and slow change.

BAĦAR ŻMIEN (Of Time And The Sea) is a film about a stasis and slow change. A crippled King whose kingdom has crumbled lives in a mould infested bunker with his two daughters. They reside on an isolated island in the wake of a bizarre malady of mysterious origin.

Following a series of encounters with an obnoxious neighbour, a Chinese billionaire desperate to contract the disease and a sousaphone player in search of his band mates, the malady threatens to return. The social order, already precarious, crumbles as the virus takes hold once again.

OF TIME AND THE SEA (2019) BAĦAR ŻMIEN - Pater Sant

INTERVIEW: Director Pater Sant talks with Vincent Poli (Editor in Cheif at FID Marseille Daily).

How would you tell the story of OF TIME AND THE SEA — a three-island archipelago where live a solitary king and his two daughters? Is it inspired by a text? Another source? Your dreams?

Yes, that’s basically it. Of course, there’s so much going on in the film it’s difficult to pin it down. With a lot of, let’s say, unconventional films out there I’m always surprised how many of them have a very simple story at their core. Personally, this is something I wanted to avoid. Looking at Bahar Zmien now after some time has passed there’s a real sense of a kind of swirling undercurrent of stories and anecdotes running through the film that together form a kind of impenetrable beast. I don’t set out to make films with stories, not to say I don’t like them, but I prefer to work in a less direct way that’s more open to interpretation.

OF TIME AND THE SEA (2019) BAĦAR ŻMIEN - Pater Sant

In regards to the inspiration, a lot of what was written stems from a myriad of literary influences such as, St Augustine’s Confessions. The central character, the girl in the orange dress, is directly influenced by books X and XI where St Augustine reaches fever pitch, grappling with remembering and forgetfulness. It’s these types of sensations that also helped form the films structure. The script was written so that the narrative unfolds and folds in on itself and was pushed even further during the edit as well as the sound design with sounds echoing back ‘n forth, a bit like Augustine’s text. For me this helped to create a kind of timelessness. Then of course there’s this idea of the crippled king with his kingdom in ruins which comes from the unfinished legend of the Fisher King, the bleeding wound, the kingdom in ruins etc.

OF TIME AND THE SEA (2019) BAĦAR ŻMIEN - Pater Sant

Was the script meant to be filmed in Malta from the beginning? Could you tell us about the experience of shooting in such surroundings?

Yes, it was always planned to be shot in Malta. Malta is quite unique in the sense that it has appeared on countless screens all over the world, especially after all the sword-and-sand epics, always doubling for Rome, Greece, Israel and the rest, but very, very rarely as itself. So, I wanted to continue this tradition and keep it as an eternal elseewhere, a stage, a set. This idea really helped form the films sensibility.

We shot it over 18 days back in 2017. The interiors were shot at the main film studios in the south of Malta at Fort Ricasoli, 17C fortifications built by the Order of Saint John. I found the place fascinating, not because of the Baroque architecture or its history but because of the fake Roman, Greek and Egyptian antiquities left behind by foreign film crews. There’s everything there, fake Arab market stalls, polystyrene statues, polystyrene books and fiberglass stones, decaying bodies. I found these imagined, or fake histories more intriguing than the real thing. 

From there we moved on to shoot the exterior scenes on the north-west coast of Malta which is where it all began back in 2014. I was walking through an area called Majjistral and at the base of a cliff I found a small abandoned hut surrounded by hundreds of metres of dry stone walls arranged in strange megalithic-type configurations, clearly they were much more recent than that, so in that sense a bit like the fake props in the studio. I tried to find out more about who lived there, what it was they farmed, or if they farmed at all and the purpose behind the stonewalls, but although there was a lot of speculation no one seemed to know for sure and that was the starting point for the script, starting with the location and inventing a past.

There is a great sense of mystery in OF TIME AND THE SEA, in the way that the audience seem to be kept away of the real story and its outcomes. Could you tell us more about that?

Personally, I think of it more as a sense of absence rather than mystery.  There’s the absence of the mother from the family, animals from the island and of course the fact that none of the characters have names. This allowed me to develop a very complex set of relations, not only between the characters themselves, but also between the visible and the invisible, the said and the unsaid. It’s through this and other similar techniques that I attempted to create this sense of absence and uncertainty but at the same time maintain a level of momentum and intrigue.

OF TIME AND THE SEA (2019) BAĦAR ŻMIEN - Pater Sant

Could you talk about the frame and lightning (especially the difference between interiors/exteriors) ? You often keep some distance the character and the camera?

Martin Testar (DoP) and I worked on the visual style over several months leading up to the shoot. We always gravitated toward the extremes, but at the same time tried to avoid things becoming overly stylized. We developed a few techniques that we employed throughout, like for instance, using only a thin slither of earth or sky for the exterior frames, or doing away with practical lights and windows for the interiors, which was a little daunting at first but ended up being quite liberating.

As for the distance between the camera and the characters this was to permit the surroundings some magnitude. I mean the area where we shot hasn’t got the grand scale of, let’s say the Kings Canyon, but if you look at it the right way it could be any size. That’s why I wanted to play with perspective, starting with empty frames where viewer establishes their own sense of scale and then having a character walk into frame and disrupt it. The frames are also almost always static and at times quite lengthy, this forces the viewer to take a more active role and become the editor by dissecting portions of the frame. But most importantly for me, it allowed the audio to creep up the pecking order that, unlike the picture, remains in constant motion.

It seems to me that through this distanciation and the intensity of certain sequences (and I especially think about the one with the microwaved food), OF TIME AND THE SEA does have a « performative » (as in « performance art ») side to it. What do you think?

Definitely. Like you say, this performative aspect crops up quite a lot in the film, there’s also the scene with linguistic riffing between the father and son, for instance. Like I said the distance between character and camera was mainly employed to give weight to the surroundings, but of course, as you point out, that also influences the reading of the film and the performances. There is of course the script as well, a lot of what was written would have always come across as being performative, no matter how it was filmed. But the other factor at play is also the cut. Once you have that distance and an aversion to the cut things automatically take on a more theatrical sense. I think working in this way forces the audience to become more active and hopefully engage more critically with the film.



 

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