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Cannes Film Festival
L'Atelier 2021:

Michael Sewandono
Mandai River

In the violent world of Southeast Asia’s deforestation, the lives of self-destructive palm oil consultant Matthew Calloway (45), rebellious Dayak farmer Laskar Harianja (40) and vindictive, spiritually sensitive, young prostitute Pearl (20), tragically entwine when they are overpowered by chaos and mystical forces beyond their control. They fail to take control of their own destiny.

Hi Michaël, thanks for talking to The New Current, how have you been keeping during these very strange Covid times? 

Thanks for having me. The last two years were quite unexpectedly invasive. I suppose my generation never experienced anything as all-encompassing. At the time we were also moving countries right in the middle of everything, but we’ve been healthy and doing well.

Is this time offering you any new creative inspirations?

Not necessarily. It was a bit of a tumultuous time and I think one needs silence and a kind of repetitive boredom in order to create. However, I did manage to set some deadlines and work on new ideas for projects that I hope to further develop in the coming year.

Congratulations on having Mandai River selected for the L'Atelier de Cannes 2021, what does it mean for you as a filmmaker to get this type of opportunity?

After working on Mandai River for many years now, it is great to see it grow every time. But it really is a long process. At the same time, if it is something you really want to make, I noticed that patience comes naturally. Cannes L’Atelier is the best platform for this final step before shooting, as it is very much an international and relevant project with much auteurism, and this is what Cannes stands for. To actually have them select the project and stand behind it feels like a great honour and will be the best possible push forward. 

Can you tell me a little bit about Mandai River, what is the inspiration behind this film?

Mandai River is a story that revolves around deforestation in Southeast Asia, a topic that is incredibly current and crucial. It is about our relation with nature, and with that our relation to ourselves. I shot a few commercial and art projects in Jakarta in the previous years. And it was present-day Jakarta that triggered me to work on this project. The dirt, the sweltering heat and the murky culture. The mouldy textures and the ever-swelling vegetation. There is life in every corner and it feels like everything is in a constant state of change. From my first research, this texture has always been in the back of my mind, and I hope will still be there while shooting. Because that is what this film is all about, the urge to dominate this presence that is natural but grows into an uncontrollable and mystical force. Strangely enough, recently it felt like it was catching up with us, and following the theme of the project; nature truly revealed itself. You could say that the destruction and decay wrought by the growing demand for cultivating lands in the tropics was at least part of the origins of the pandemic. 

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"Something that connects with you personally, because only then, nothing really matters and you can find the energy to just keep ongoing."

Have you always had a passion for filmmaking? 

I suppose I have, but filmmaking is such a collaborative effort that it is hard to pinpoint what that passion exactly is. There are so many aspects during the process that can give me that feeling of joy, of meaning. From the writing to the shooting, while editing. For me, what matters is to find an atmosphere that speaks to me, in a character, in a setting, in a scene. Always looking for that one thing that creates some kind of authenticity. 

Now you can be reflective what advice would you offer a fellow filmmaker?

I have yet to make my first feature, but from what I can see you have to make something that matters. Something that connects with you personally, because only then, nothing really matters and you can find the energy to just keep ongoing. Finding this however is hard, and all you should do is actually finish the scenario. Keep on writing and focus. 

And finally, what do you hope to take away from your experience at L’Atelier? 

L'Atelier allows us to present the project on the most prestigious platform, to the right people with a common interest. It is about finding those who share the fundamentals of the project, and I believe Cannes will provide just that.

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