LIFF: ‘Shame on Dry Land’ director Axel Petersén discusses his Malta-set drama featuring Joel Spira and a thrilling score

Axel Petersén’s Shame on Dry Land had its premiere at Toronto Film Festival, before heading over the sea to land at London International Film Festival.

The film sees a mysterious former fraudster named Dimman wash up in Malta where an old friend of his now resides, along with many other Swedish expats. He isn’t as welcomed as one might expect, and we begin to realise that something clearly happened in the past between the two friends.

As we slowly discover what has transpired between them and that Dimman is seeking some sort of redemption, he gets caught up in yet more shady dealings. He’s tasked with tracking an eccentric man who is acting suspiciously on the island, and from here things start to descend into chaos.

Joel Spira in Shame on Dry Land (Photo Credit: ©FEDRA Josua Enblom)

Axel started the film back in 2018. The concept for the film began when he heard stories through friends who all lived in France; “In most cases they had done something that had prevented them from coming home” Axel recalls, “It could have been anywhere – like Hong Kong, Namibia, or Malta – which I settled on.”

Where the director’s previous films, The Real Estate and Avalon, dealt with homecoming, Axel wanted to change things up a bit; “I thought it was time to make something about my own generation and not my parents. Then there was the fact I had never been to Malta either – so I decided that I would go over there and have a look, especially after I heard a lot of things about it from some friends of mine in the gaming industry.”

Within 24 hours of his visit there it became clear to the director that this was the place to base his film, and so Shame on Dry Land‘s story begun.

I wanted to make something that felt human, a dilemma that everyone can more or less relate to – unless you are a complete psychopath.”

Director Axel Petersén (Photo Credit: MärtaThisner)

To set the tone of the film we personally found that it shared some DNA with the likes of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, in which a young Kyle MacLachlan entangles himself with the wrong people. Deciding to become his own detective, he lands in an assortment of peculiar and dangerous situations.

In Shame on Dry Land, Dimman (played by Joel Spira – who we will come onto later) is set a mission to follow an individual which in turn leads to some detective work, and equally some dangerous moments. All the while we are left wondering what the hell is going on with him and why is he in Malta?

I guess with Blue Velvet the hero makes the choices he makes and does what he does – he doesn’t really know what the f*ck he is getting himself into except that he is just getting deeper into it. I see those similarities between the two films – it certainly isn’t some boring detective movie,that is for sure.

Interestingly enough at a Swedish screening a journalist mentioned in his interview with Axel that he wasn’t able to compare the film with anything and whether this was a bad thing.

I was like, no this is isn’t a bad thing – this is a great thing!

Blue Velvet was perhaps fresh in my mind having only seen it a few months before seeing Shame on Dry Land, but it is important to point out that it truly is its own film and part of its brilliance comes from the film’s lead – Joel Spira.

Joel Spira in Shame on Dry Land (Photo Credit: ©FEDRA Josua Enblom)

Joel Spira is a Swedish actor who we have followed in the TV series Thicker Than Water. He has appeared in Top Dog, and most recently in Bergman Island too. We have also seen his work in a couple of short films by Jakob Marky – For Her and Make Up. There has always been this great edge to the actor – balancing the comical with a mystery to him. He is so good at playing someone hard to read – which made us feel that Shame on Dry Land really was made for him.

It was“, Axel smiles it total agreement, “I think he is a world-class actor and the way he handles and delivers this role is so amazing.”

Joel’s character Dimman seems to arrive in Malta from a cruise ship, even then you are wondering how he ended up on cruise ship. Did he sneak onboard, as the opening scenes are in the engine room of the ship; then he is jet skied off from the cruise as if he was Jason Bourne or Bond.

If you didn’t know better you’d think he was one of those and you have no idea where this is all going” says Axel.

But then the next thing we see, once he gets to what seems to be an old friend’s house, is him creeping up to this man, hiding in the shadows, almost terrified to show his face – and it is in that moment where the question marks start to pop up; who the hell is this guy and are his intentions good or bad, also what the hell did he do?

A wonderful line that is a poignant moment in the film is when someone asks, ‘How many Swedes does it take to sink this island?’ To which Dimman replies defiantly: ‘One’.

And so this mysterious character begins to unravel for us in moments of fragility, violence, and comedy.

Joel Spira in Shame on Dry Land (Photo Credit: ©FEDRA Josua Enblom)

Along with Joel’s great performance is the music composition for the film, which is particularly unique and hard to rinse from your brain hours after watching. As you find yourself being completely absorbed into the story and characters unfolding in front of you, along comes this soundtrack which totally adds emotion and tension throughout the film – ending with a singalong classic you’d never see coming. Enter Baba Stiltz.

Baba had never done anything like this before, he’s young to start with and he comes from this electronic music background. Then he started making some country music, that is where I met him“, the director explains. “He wanted me to make a music video for him which unfortunately didn’t happen, this was 5 years ago, and when we met again I thought to myself maybe there is something we can do here with the film’s soundtrack.”

Most of the initial music provided was all done on guitar but when Axel said that he imagined his character Dimman being a wind instrument, unsure of which one, things began to take a dramatic change.

He really seemed to pick up on the vibe that I was going for and he started to send me some samples pretty early on. It was just wonderful!

The underwater saxophone was a high note for Axel, and from there on in he had no worries about the fact this was Baba’s first experience doing a musical score – he was well and truly sold.

When we say that you may not have heard a soundtrack quite like it, we do genuinely mean it. It is an extra experience added to this story which one imagines hearing in the cinema blasting from all speakers would be both stressful and magnificent – the sound always pushing longer than you want it to, but still delivering in supporting the scene it is composed over.

There might even be a release of the soundtrack which would certainly be great fun to listen over in a different context to when watching the film.

To sum it up Axel confides: “I don’t know what this film would have been without it.”

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