The highly anticipated film adaptation of Alex Vella Gera’s National Book Prize winning novel Is-Sriep Reġgħu saru Velenużi (Merlin Publishers, 2012) will hit the big screen on Friday, August 6 at Eden Cinemas. Ahead of its launch in a few weeks we speak to its director and producer Martin Bonnici. The film Is-Sriep Reġgħu saru Velenużi was produced with the support of the National Book Council’s inaugural Film Adaptation Fund.

This is your first feature film after a number of short films – when did you start thinking about making this film and how was the experience of getting it off the ground?

Teodor Reljić and I started working on the project a few years ago, I think it was around 2015 or 2016. Adapting an existing product into a screenplay is not an easy task, there are a lot of elements you need to balance out and tough decisions to make – like what to keep and what to leave out. As in any film process, the development and financing period was tough and at times disappointing. However, it was a healthy process that allowed us to work on the narrative and ensure a solid basis for our film.

Sriep is an adaptation of Alex Vella Gera’s modern classic which revolves around a fictionalised plot to assassinate former Prime Minister of Malta Dom Mintoff – which aspect of the  novel left the deepest impression?

Reading Alex Vella Gera’s novel the first time I was immediately struck by the idea of Noel Sammut Petri’s complete ignorance of his family’s past. I felt that it spoke to me as a Maltese citizen, like many of my contemporaries, I still have no idea of what really happened in Malta post-independence. We have all had to make do with the little information available and stories we have been told, and just like Noel, we keep suffering from lack of knowledge. That is what ultimately led me to put my energy into this project.

What were the salient creative decisions which you feel made the film come to life in a new medium?

As an adaptation, we have had to change a number of things from the novel to make it fit a different medium. We were lucky enough to have a narrative whose original author was very accepting of our changes. Some characters were streamlined and we had to trim the story as well, keeping only the most important of story beats.

Sriep revisits Malta’s politically turbulent 1980s and explores the way it can still haunt present day realities. What do you hope audiences will take away from the film?

My biggest hope is that the audience comes out of a screening willing to talk more, open up in an honest way about our past, and have a mature discussion about what really happened and how Malta needs to change or as I like to say, grow.

You entered production in the middle of the pandemic – how did you deal with these challenges?

The pandemic made life and work entirely unpredictable and I think that was the biggest challenge we faced. Yes, working in August wearing masks and covered in sanitiser wasn’t the best conditions to make a film, but the unpredictability of the changing restrictions and the anxiety of the pandemic itself were the worst. What made it all bearable and manageable was having a dedicated cast and crew that were flexible and supportive.

Much of the film is carried by the performances of its lead actors Chris Galea, Gianni Selvaggi, Joseph Zammit and Erica Muscat, most of whom are debuting in feature film performances. How was it to work with them and the rest of the cast?

I might be biased but I think we had the best cast any film could wish for. We had a mix of talents from different generations and schools of acting and they all brought their rich experiences and talents to the film. Seeing them bring these characters to life was a joy to behold and it made the experience of directing my first feature film truly magical.

Given the opportunity are there are any other stories from local works of literature that you’d like to produce, direct or see as a movie?

Personally I would love to take a stab at adapting Alfred Sant’s Silġ Fuq Kemmuna and L-Għalqa ta’ l-Iskarjota, but there is a wealth of stories to choose from Maltese literature. One has to be mindful of the resources and realities of the current state of the Maltese film industry, a blockbuster type of story is unlikely to work out, but we are not short of inspiration or stories to adapt.

The film Is-Sriep Reġgħu saru Velenużi will also be screened at the Malta Book Festival 2021 at the MFCC on 7 November. Watch the trailer here:

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