|Wednesday, 4 September 2002|
The freeze of the cinema
Writing his leader in the May 2001 issue of Sight and Sound the delectable Nick James recalls Peter Mathew's comment on the critic Andre Bazin who founded Cashires du Cinema, which was celebrating its 50th Anniversary. Said Mathews "the single thinker most responsible for bestowing on cinema the prestige both of an art form and of an object of knowledge". So Mr. James rounds up his piece very regretfully as he laments over "the rest as they say, is history and that the very fact that the cultural germination began fifty years ago shall give us pause for thought as to why nothing like it happens since."
Here in Sri Lanka it would be interesting to recall the short history of the cinema. In the early twenties with the making of that memorable documentary "The song of ceylon" by Basil Wright, the need to nurture a Sinhala cinema emerged. I think the forerunner to this was the Fort Y.M.C.A.'s Film Forum at which Classics like "Film and Reality Rienie Clare's Italian Strawhat Eisenstien's Battleship Potemkin Griffith's Birth of a Nation Grierson's Workers and Jobs were screened".
The earliest Sinhala film on record was a kind of adventure film produced by one Noor Bhai in which the late Dr. N.M. Perera, as a young student of Ananda College played the main role. But mysteriously the film caught fire and never reached the screen.
With the failure of the adventure film there emerged another titled Divine Love the hero of which was the late Mr. E.C.B. (Earle) Wijesinghe. This film too never reached the screen. There was a lull for many years, no producer daring to enter the field, due to the financial loss of the pioneers.
The Film Society movement
Incidentally, one should recall that this was the time the Colombo Film Society was formed, the forerunner to which was the Y.M.C.A. Film Forum. The Colombo Film Society gradually expanded and the University of Ceylon at the time followed suit with a Film Society of its own. In about 1957 with the expansion of the university i.e., the University of Ceylon, Colombo, University of Ceylon Peradeniya, University of Ceylon Jayawardenapura University of Ceylon, Vidyalankara, Film Societies grew up.
First Sri Lankan Film
The Negombo Minerva Players at the time were in the Zenith of their theatrical career. They were producing social satires depicting the lives of the lower-middle class.
The Minerva Players embarked on an ambitious project of making films based on their stage-plays. So the first ever Sinhala feature was "Broken Promise", which broke box-office records. At best they were photographed stage-plays.
But the average Sinhala audiences lapped them up with a vengeance, at least for Eddie Jayamanne's frolicsome jests with the kitchen-aid and Rukmani Devi's melodious voice.
Many films, mostly carbon copies of South Indian trash reached the screen. One would hardly comment on any of them until Sirisena Wimalaweera made "Podi Putha" (Younger Son) which created a stir among cinematic dove-costs. Here was a film out of the ordinary. This film seems to be the harbinger to a more realistic cinema, which most critics were looking forward to.
Line of Destiny
The film "Rekawa" (line of Destiny) ushered in a new era to the Sinhala cinema and its creator Dr. Lester James Peries who sacrificed his career at the Govt. Film unit along with his colleagues William Blake and Titus de Silva (Totawatta). The film won many awards at three international festivals.
The local press hailed it. I remember one critic had this to say "Rekawa" affirms the immense faith the director has in the filmgoer and the success or the failure of the film will not only affect the personal future of the filmmaker but on it will depend the entire fate of the Sinhala film. How true is it today? Not that the Sinhala film has fallen by the way.
But for a handful of dedicated film makers, who have sacrificed their time and energy to salvage the Sinhala film throughout the past half-century, the majority of Sinhala film-makers who decried this art-cinema or more so the cinema of realism and went into make pot-boilers have learnt their bitter lessons.
Well their puerile thinking that people want light entertainment and perverse sex have brought the Sinhala cinema to the present sordid state. Now their scapegoat is television, that it is the cause of the debacle.
But films like "Ahas Gawwa", "Sath Samudura", "Gamperaliya", "Bambaru Avith" (The Warps are Here), "Viragaya", "Nidhanaya", Purahanda Kaluwara", "Saroja" and "Aswesuma" have obviously won so many international awards.
The most amusing thing is the latest gimmick to sponsor what they call cinema clubs (pardon me, the very name suggest the spectre of commercialism) one can think of Health Clubs, Physical Culture Clubs but who on earth talks of cinema clubs, rather than Film Societies, and their Federation such as the Federation of Film Societies of London.
"Film, I feel should be a mirror held to Society. It is the function of the filmmaker to portray. Life in its true perspective" said Roger Manvel.
If the Sinhala Cinema is to survive leaving aside the hallucinations of T.V. haunting its very existence, I remember the realistic appraisal of J.R. Debrix in relation to Resanais' films says "We see that the problem of communication between the artist and his audience is not a simple one, it depends on what is to be communicated.
Difficulty in communication may not be due to fault or perversity on the part of the film-maker but rather to the fact that he is trying to communicate something deeper and profounder.
I remember referring to another medium. Browning wrote of Feelings that broke through language and escaped. Eventually, we are now watching in agony the virtual "Freeze of the Cinema".
- Elmo Fernando
Produced by Lake House