Cinema of Sri Lanka


Die, die, die, 2012! Besides being a period of personal lows, it was a bad year at the movies for me. Not only did the quantity of the films I watched come down, but the enthusiasm with which I watched, read about and discussed films plummeted. That the amount of good films made this year pales in comparison to the last doesn’t help either. Not to mention the passing of Chris Marker. Unlike the years before, there are barely a handful of movies from 2012 that I’m really keen on seeing (most of them from Hollywood). The following list of favorite 2012 titles (world premiere only) was chalked with some struggle because I couldn’t name 10 films that I loved without reservations. Here’s to a better year ahead.

 

1. Cosmopolis (David Cronenberg, Canada)

 

CosmopolisSurely, it takes a bona fide auteur like David Cronenberg to locate his signature concerns in a text – such as Don Delillo’s – that deals with ideas hitherto unexplored by him and spin out the most exciting piece of cinema this year. Holed up in his stretch limo – an extension of his body, maneuvering through Manhattan inch by inch as though breathing – Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) comprehends the universe outside like cinema, through a series of moving images projected onto his car windows. Why not? This world, whose master he is, is experiencing the epistemological crisis of late capitalism: the increasing abstraction of tactile reality into digital commodities. Packer, like many Cronenberg characters, is more machine than man, attempts – against the suggestions of his asymmetrical prostate and of the protagonist of Cronenberg’s previous film – to construct a super-rational predictable model of world economy – a project whose failure prompts him to embark on an masochistic odyssey to reclaim the real, to experience physicality, to be vulnerable and to ultimately die. At the end of the film, one imagines Packer shouting: “Death to Cyber-capitalism! Long live the new flesh!

2. Holy Motors (Leos Carax, France)

 

Holy MotorsUn chant d’amour for cinema, Leos Carax’s Holy Motors is an ambitious speculation about the total transformation of life into cinema and cinema into life – the death of the actor, audience and the camera. The European cousin to Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010), Carax’s return-to-zero work draws inspiration from the process of film itself – death, resurrection and persistence of vision – and takes cinema to its nascence – fairground attractions, popular theatre and zoopraxography – while opening up to its future possibilities. Uncle Oscar (Denis Lavant, the raison d’etre of Holy Motors), like Cronenberg’s Packer, cruises the streets of Paris in his limo in search of purely physical experiences – a series of performance pieces carried out solely for “the beauty of the act” – only to find that the city is a gigantic simulacrum in which everyone is a performer and a spectator (and thus no one is) and where the distinction between the real and the fictional becomes immaterial. At the very least, Holy Motors is a reflection on the passing of “things”, of physicality, of the beauty of real gesture, of the grace of movement of men and machines.

3. differently, Molussia (Nicolas Rey, France)

 

Differently, MolussiaNicolas Rey’s third feature, consisting of 9 short segments (reels, to be precise) projected in a random sequence, is a radical project that re-politicizes the cinematic image. Not only does the randomization of the order of projection of the reels circumvent the problem of the authoritarianism of a fixed narrative, it also exposes the seam between the semi-autonomous theses-like segments, thereby making the audience attentive to possible ideological aporias that are usually glossed over by the self-fashioned integrity of filmic texts. Furthermore, the existence of the film in the form separate reels is a breathing reminder of the material with which it was made: 16mm. The persistent dialectic between the visual – shots of highways, industries, farms and modernist suburban housing in the eponymous fictional city registering the sedate rhythm of everyday life – and the aural – snippets of conversations between two politicized industrial workers about the invisible tendons that enable a society to function smoothly – strongly drives home the chief, Althusserian concern of the film: the essential unity of the various, seemingly autonomous, strands of a state, contrary to claims of disjunction and autonomy.

4. Tabu (Miguel Gomes, Portugal)

 

TabuA film that is reminiscent of Weerasethakul’s many bipartite films, Miguel Gomes’ singular Tabu, too, works on a range of binaries – past/present, youth/old age, city/countryside, abundance/scarcity, modern/primitive, colonizer/colonized – and sets up a conversation between the carefree, profligate days of the empire full of love, laughter and danger and Eurocrisis-inflected, modern day Portugal marked by alienation and loneliness. The opening few minutes – a melancholy mini-mockumentary of sorts chronicling the adventures of a European explorer in Africa with a native entourage –announces that the film will be balancing distancing irony and classicist emotionality, donning an attitude that is in equal measure critical and sympathetic towards the past. In Gomes’ sensitive film, the heavy hand of the past weighs down on the present both on aesthetic (silent cinema stylistics, film stock, academy ratio, the excitement of classical genres) and thematic (collective colonial guilt, residual racism, punishment for forbidden love) levels and this inescapability of the past is also functions as (sometimes dangerous) nostalgia for the simplicity and innocence of a cinema lost and an entreaty for the necessity of exploring and preserving film history.

5. Paradise: Love (Ulrich Seidl, Austria)

 

Paradise-LoveWhat partially elevates the first film of Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise trilogy from its rather undistinguished concerns about emotional alienation and old age loneliness is the nexus of intriguing cultural forces that it brings into the picture by having a relatively affluent, 50-year old Austrian single-mother (Margarete Tiesel, in a no-holds-barred performance) indulge in sex tourism in Kenya along with five other women friends. The result is a rich, provocative negotiation along class, gender, race and age divides that upsets conventional, convenient oppressor-oppressed relationships. In doing so, the film wrenches love from the realm of the universal and the ahistorical and demonstrates that between two people lies the entire universe. Seidl’s heightened, bright colour palette that provides a sharp chromatic contrast to the bodies of Kenyan natives and his confrontational, static, frontal compositions (Seidl’s nudes are antitheses to those of the Renaissance), which make indoor spaces appear like human aquariums, both invite the voyeuristic audience to take a peek into this world and place it on another axis of power – of the observer and the observed.

6. With You, Without You (Prasanna Vithanage, Sri Lanka)

 

With You, Without YouSri Lankan filmmaker Prasanna Vithanage’s exquisite, exceptional adaptation of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Meek One (1876) aptly locates the Russian tale of matrimonial discord between a bourgeois pawnbroker and the gentle creature he weds within the ethno-political conflict between nationalist and rebel factions of the country. Unlike humanist war dramas that, often naively, stress the underlying oneness among individuals on either side, Vithanage’s intelligent film underscores how the political haunts the personal and how the tragic weight of history impacts the compatibility between individuals here and now, while deftly retaining Dostoyevsky’s central theme of ownership of one human by another. Though liberal in narration and moderate in style compared to Mani Kaul’s and Robert Bresson’s adaptations of the short story, Vithanage, too, employs an attentive ambient soundtrack that counts down to an impending doom and numerous shots of hands to emphasize the centrality of transaction in interpersonal relationships. The metaphysical chasm between the possessor and the possessed finds seamless articulation in concrete sociopolitical relations between Sinhalese and Tamils, between the army and refugees, between the poor and the wealthy and between man and woman.

7. Walker (Tsai Ming-liang, Hong Kong)

 

WalkerThere has always been something intensely spiritual about Tsai’s films, even when they seem to wallow in post-apocalyptic cityscapes and defunct social constructions. In Tsai’s hands, it would seem, an empty subway corridor shot in cheap digital video becomes the holiest of spaces ever filmed. Walker, a high-def video short made as a part of the Beautiful 2012 project commissioned by Hong Kong International Film Festival, crystallizes this particular tendency in the director’s work and centers on a Buddhist monk played by Lee Kang-sheng (a muse like no other in 21st century cinema). As the monk walks the hyper-commercialized streets of Hong Kong at a phenomenally slow pace for two days and two nights, his red robe becomes a visual anchor in stark contrast to the greys of the urban jungle and the blacks of people’s winter clothing and his very being, his eternal presence, becomes a spiritual grounding point amidst the impersonal hustle-bustle of this super-capitalist Mecca. Part performance art with a gently cynical punch line, part an exploration of the limits of DV, Walker is a deeply soothing and often moving work from one of Asia’s finest.

8. Celluloid Man (Shivendra Singh Dungarpur, India)

 

Celluloid ManMoving unsteadily with the help of a walking stick, the 79-year old founder of the National Film Archive of India (NFAI), P. K. Nair, despite himself, becomes a metaphor for the state of film archiving in the country. It is of considerable irony that, in a nation that prides itself for its rich cultural heritage, film archiving is considered a useless exercise. During the three decades that Nair headed the NFAI, he was instrumental in discovering the silent works and early talkies of Bombay and south Indian cinema, including those of Dadasaheb Phalke, the “father of Indian cinema”. Celluloid Man, bookended by scenes from Citizen Kane (1941), draws inspiration from Welles’ film and sketches a fascinating if reverential portrait of Nair constructed from interviews with international filmmakers, scholars, historians and programmers and curiously hinged on the fact of Nair’s “Rosebud” – ticket stubs, promotional material and assorted film-related curios that the man collected during his childhood. Shivendra Singh’s film is a irresistible romp through early Indian cinema and an endlessly absorbing tribute to a man who is fittingly dubbed the “Henri Langlois of India”. To paraphrase one of the interviewees, Phalke gave Indian cinema a past, Nair gave it a history.

9. Laurence Anyways (Xavier Dolan, Canada)

 

Laurence AnywaysAlthough it might appear that it is perhaps the hollowness of Xavier Dolan’s previous feature that makes his latest, 160-minute music video look like a cinematic coup, Laurence Anyways really does succeed in accomplishing more than most of contemporary “LGBT-themed independent cinema”. While the latter – including this year’s Cahiers darling – almost invariably consists of realist, solidarity pictures that use social marginalization as shorthand for seriousness, Dolan’s emotionally charged film takes the game one step further and probes the inseparability of body and character, the effect of the physical transformation of a person on all his relationships – a transformation that is mirrored in the flamboyant, shape-shifting texture of the film – without sensationalizing the transformation itself. Rife, perhaps too much so, with unconventional aesthetic flourishes and personal scrapbook-ish inserts, the film rekindles and enriches the youthful verve of the Nouvelle Vague – a move that should only be welcome by film culture. If not anything more, Laurence Anyways establishes that critics need to stop using its author’s age as a cudgel and look at his cinema du look as something more than a compendium of adolescent affectations.

10. Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson, USA)

 

Moonrise KingdomLet me confess upfront that putting Wes Anderson’s (surprise!) whimsy, twee and self-conscious Moonrise Kingdom in my year-end list is less a full-hearted appreciation of the film than a confession that I find Anderson to be an important voice that I’m genuinely keen about, but can’t entirely celebrate. I don’t think I’ve seen any film that employs so many elements of industrial cinema yet feels meticulously artisanal, a film that, on the surface, seems to (literally) play to the gallery yet is so full of personality and one that is oddly familiar yet thoroughly refuses instant gratification. Moonrise Kingdom appears to have every ingredient of an obnoxious family comedy, but the unironic, straight-faced attitude and the single-minded conviction with which it moulds the material into an anti-realist examination of the anxieties of growing up, alone, is something not to be found either in cynical mainstream cinema or in the overwrought indie scene of America. Anderson’s neo-sincere film is, as it were, a classicist text couched within a postmodern shell, an emotional film without affect. Paper blossoms, but blossoms nonetheless.

 

Special Mention: The Queen Of Versailles (Lauren Greenfield, USA)

 

Sulanga Enu Pinisa (2005) (aka The Forsaken Land)
Vimukthi Jayasundara
Sinhala

“I committed no sin. I’ve always wanted to earn paradise. But I won’t die in this desert without a holy place. If you die here, you’ll be reborn as a toad or a snake.

 

The Forsaken LandSri Lankan filmmaker Vimukthi Jayasundara’s debut and only film to date, The Forsaken Land (2005), opens at dusk with the shot of an armed man carefully surveying a vast stretch of land, walking over it in a zigzag pattern and pausing occasionally to observe specific points on it. Following this, we see a montage of seemingly unrelated images – a hand running over a tube light, a rigid arm jutting out of a stream of water and a couple sleeping, filmed head on – that recall Weerasethakul’s films for some reason and announce the otherworldly nature of this land where the story is to unfold. The Forsaken Land embodies the quintessence of the radical, new age aesthetic known as Contemporary Contemplative Cinema with its penchant for protracted, long shots and accentuated, hyper-real direct sound (particularly the sounds of elements of nature), its keen eye for landscapes and its tendency to favour the documentation of rhythm of life and gradual changes in human behavioral patterns over construction of intricate plots and dense theoretical analyses and announces (as do most of the films employing this aesthetic) that the time for action is over and the time for reflection has indeed begun. Having been slammed by the right wing for being anti-war and, indirectly, pro-terrorist, and received threats from the ruling majority, Jayasundara hasn’t made a film since.

The Forsaken Land is set at a time when war between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of the Tamil Ealam (LTTE) has reached a deadlock and is at a point where either side can trigger the next phase of battles. But it becomes clear, as the film unfolds, that this abeyance of war is just an illusion of peace that will be disrupted anytime, as indicated by the threatening presence of tanks, trucks and jeeps everywhere.  The film charts the lives of six individuals living in a remote area in southern part of the country – Anura (Mahendra Perera), the lone guard at the local military outpost who goes to duty everyday to protect it from a nonextant enemy, his wife Lata (Nilupli Jeyawardena) who stays home, spending her time observing the world around her, his sister Soma (Kaushalya Fernando) who goes to work in the town nearby and who is either unmarried or has lost her spouse, his colleague, the old man Piyasiri (Hemasiri Liyanage), who seems to have a strange affinity towards the little girl Batti (Pamudika Sapurni Peiris), who may or may not be the daughter of Soma and a soldier Palitha (Saumya Liyanage), who has an affair with Lata. Not only is none of these relationships made clear, but they are also rendered irrelevant. Information is aptly given in extremely small amounts with only barebones of a story to support it.

The Forsaken LandThe first thing that one notices in the film is how sparse the locales are. There are hardly any people seen. There is no connection of the village to the world around it save for the occasional bus that takes Batti to her school and Soma to her workplace. There are no TVs, no radios or even newspapers that are seen in the film (till Soma decides to buy a radio from her salary). Anura’s house, itself, stands as the lone man-made structure in this seemingly limitless plain. Additionally, the film does not particularize the location and hence it can be assumed that Jayasundara is universalizing the conditions of his central characters. It is not only a geographical vacuum that these characters seem to be living in, but also in political, moral and cinematic vacuums, Clearly, these characters are suspended in the hiatus between two brutal civil wars, unable to settle down into a permanent life style. They amuse themselves with petty sexual games and illicit affairs while murder is not an uncommon act around here. Somehow, all the characters in the film seem to have landed smack dab in the amoral middle of the moral spectrum (Only Anura turns out to be residing in a void within this void, with a shade of positive morality within, as indicated by the final minutes of the film). Moreover, in the indoor scenes of the film (there aren’t many), Jayasundara and cinematographer Channa Deshapriya light and film these characters in such a way that they seem to live inside a black void, unable to get out and soon to be annihilated by it.

But these people also harbour a hope, in vain, of escaping this limbo. Palitha wishes that he can go north and fly a helicopter, Soma decides to move out and teach at schools in other villages and Anura criticizes Palitha for blaspheming, betraying his belief that there is a higher power that will carry him through. They even speak about reincarnations in these lands forsaken by god. But, of course, they are sucked back by the void and dragged back into the vicious circle. It’s a circle alright. Piyasiri tells Batti a story about a dwarf girl and a hunchback. Like the hunchback who destroys his own house (and later himself) to protect his vanity and keeps doing the same mistake ad infinitum, all these characters seem be going in the same enclosed path (This seems to be the very case with the civil war, in fact, where for some arbitrary ideologies, people seem to be killing each other). Like the eternal repercussions of the hunchback’s deeds, the mistakes of the past – both personal and national – seem to bear upon each of the adults in the film. Only Batti, the icon of future and posterity in the film, with her innocence and untainted morality, free of any scar from the past, offers some hope when she boards the bus out of this blasted village as the film fades to black.

The Forsaken LandAnura guarding the outpost that is far from being under threat is reminiscent of Herzog’s Signs of Life (1968), where, too, the very purpose of existence of the characters was questioned. But unlike Herzog’s protagonist who attempts to induce aggression onto the ruined, dead and harmless surroundings, the characters in Jayasundara’s film succumb to it. The sudden passivity that follows an intense period of violence seems to have thrown them out of control. But, rather than Herzog, Jayasundara’s use of landscapes to underscore the moral depravity and pointlessness of the character’s lives suggests Rossellini and Antonioni. The house the characters live in is breaking down; there are hints of death around them regularly; the characters are ironically cleansing themselves now and then as if to rid themselves of this stagnation. Why, the building that unites all the characters and is placed physically on the highest ground, as if it is a sacred monument, is, of all things, a toilet. There is an image in the film early on of Anura sitting naked, stripped of his uniform and hence his identity, within bushes holding on to his gun. This could well represent the whole idea that the film presents. What’s the use of a weapon when you are dying out there, stark naked? What’s the use of boosting your defense systems when your people are dying of hunger and cold? However, Jayasundara’s film, although a maiden work, rarely lends itself to such propagandistic statements and, instead, lets us discover what it is like to be out there.

Godard once remarked that the best film on Auschwitz is one that unfolds in the house of one of the prison guards. Jayasundara’s film comes very close to that. It is more interested in what the war has done than the war itself. The focus of the film is the indelible scars a war leaves on its land and its people. The people in The Forsaken Land are those who have not been able to get rid of the inertia of fear and instability triggered by the war. They have resorted to nihilism, indulging themselves in superficial relationships and casual sex, perhaps in a belief that this state of peace is only transitory and there is no escape from the war. Like the fortunate turtle, which Batti finds, that escapes the claws of the vulture for a brief period of time, like that fish out of water waiting for the rain to pull it back into its routine, these people are merely waiting for fate to sweep them along and out of this limbo. And Jayasundara’s film proficiently shows us how such a precarious situation can prompt a human being to shed all the values he/she holds dear. By actually presenting the insanity that happens during a period of ceasefire, in the form of tortures and custody killings, as grotesque, brutal and indigestible, Jayasundara’s film indirectly questions the absurdity of justifying the very same routines during the war as acts of glory and honour.

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