Tekst (smal)

Cannes Atelier: Mandai River

Michael Sewandono's Mandai River project to be pitched at this year's event

Dutch producer Raymond van der Kaaij talks to See NL about his dramatic and controversial new drama project set against a backdrop of palm oil production and violent deforestation in South East Asia.

Mandai River is a story both compelling and essential, and concerns deforestation in South East Asia where virgin forests are destroyed for commodities such as palm oil. Within a world of decadence, destruction and decay, we follow three conflicted characters that fight for their own existence, but who are also confronted by their lack of relevance amidst the uncontrollable forces that surround them. It is a film that is, in equal measure, dramatic, hedonistic, compassionate and mystical - and emotionally searing. It is a film about our relationship with nature, and hence our relationship with ourselves.

“Mandai River is set against the backdrop of the palm oil industry in South East Asia that is filled with global companies and governments and powerful forces that are obviously bigger than a handful of individual people,” says producer Raymond van der Kaaij of Dutch powerhouse Revolver. “The thing that attracted me to the story is how director Michael Sewandono wants to show a world that is out of balance, a world that is chaotic, a world in which people are trying not only to survive, but actually trying to do good, and to change things against all odds. But they get lost along the way too. And this complexity makes the characters so very real.”

Nature will prevail despite the best efforts of human kind to destroy natural eco-systems, the film underlines, but nature also works as an analogy for the very same human behaviour that drives the narrative. “The parallel between the luxurious skyscrapers and the voluptuous rainforests, with its self-indulgence and splurge of beauty, tells a story of dominance, how nature lives by dominating others,” stresses director Michael Sewandono in his notes for the project.

“Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins states that a forest, however beautiful, is nothing less than the result of aggressive attempts of one plant to receive more light over the other. That nature is predominantly a fight for existence and reproduction. Nature lives by dominating others.”

The project, which is also supported by the Netherlands Film Fund, was developed at the EAVE Ties That Bind program in 2019 and pitched at Focus Asia 2020. At Cannes Atelier, Van der Kaaij will “further launch” the project, after which he will continue the process of raising finance and packaging, all the time working closely with casting director Debbie McWilliams (Casino Royale, Skyfall). He is looking to South East Asia for potential partners, as well as Europe (the topic of palm oil is high on the political agenda in Scandinavia) and the US/UK for “non-grant, non-subsidy money.”

“We are trying to build in a very solid way, building the relationships, understanding the nature of finance in some of these countries, which can be more intertwined with politics. We want to understand how it works on a political level. So we are taking our time,” says Van der Kaiij. “We hope to shoot the film at the end of next year (2022), but this is also very much dependent on the local situation, the political situation.”

“Obviously we are dealing with rainy seasons that shift every year,” he continues. “We are still determining where we will shoot, in which country within the region. So it could be that we might just have to split it between several countries. It is a pretty lengthy shoot as well. Not the standard 28 to 30 days. Probably double of that.” Van der Kaaij is confident of an autumn 2023 delivery.

“What also appealed to me is knowing Michael and his work over many, many years, I think his signature and his authorship is truly unique,” adds the producer of his director. “His visual style is very textured and poetic and observational.” Van der Kaaij further likens Sewandono’s work to that of Alejandro G. Iñárritu (Amores Perros) and Fernando Meirelles (The Constant Gardener). “They also make films in which you can relate to the characters, even though these characters do not win in the end. They are vulnerable and they fall down and, for this reason, I personally find them a lot more interesting.”

For more information on Cannes Atelier, click here.

To learn more about Mandai River, visit Revolver Amsterdam's website here.

Festival: Cannes