27 September, 2020

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Colombo International Film Festival: Six Days That Would Change Your World

By Vangeesa Sumanasekara

Vangeesa Sumanasekara

Vangeesa Sumanasekara

It is possible that one may find my title to be exaggerated: this is not the first time that we are hearing the words ‘international film festival’ in a Sri Lankan context. Over the years, we have had many events of this nature where films made by non-Sri Lankans were shown together. True, those words may have been used before for some of those, no doubt important, efforts to bring in those cinephiles and other art enthusiasts together to appreciate the art of cinema. I insist, however, that this is indeed unprecedented, both in quality and in quantity. An international film festival worthy of that name – comparable at least in spirit, if not in deed, for now, to those iconic festivals of that mythical entity called ‘the world cinema’.

The old Marxian distinction between the base and the superstructure, it seems to me, gives us an adequate approach to understand the radical novelty and the unavoidable importance of this first ever Colombo International Film Festival. That this distinction was at the center of the disputes apropos what can be tentatively called ‘Marxist philosophy of art’ makes it all the more suitable to our current purposes.

At its most elementary level, we can say that the base, in classical Marxism, is the invisible, or the deliberately hidden, process of social production upon which the visible sphere of politics, the law and culture, constituting the superstructure, rests. Almost from the moment of its inception, this distinction has been challenged by a wide array of critiques, ranging from intentional misreadings to politically salient questions. If this distinction has generally withered away from political thought today, it is because there is no getting away from the fact that the founding fathers of Marxism remained convinced that economic production is the ultimate – as Engels liked to put it – determining element in history and compared to which all the other factors are, again, ultimately of secondary importance.

It would be a mistake, however, to succumb to the vulgar interpretation of this distinction, according to which, everything in the superstructure is an immediate reflection of the economic base, for Marx is too refined a thinker to be a victim of such a simplistic theory. As is well known, it is precisely on the issue of art that Marx problematized and cautioned us against such vulgar interpretation when he wronte:

“In the case of the arts, it is well known that certain periods of their flowing are out of all proportion to the general development of society, hence also to the material foundation, the skeletal structure, as it were, of its organization. For example, the Greeks compared to the moderns or also Shakespeare.”

In other words, the arts have a unique status within the superstructure because they can reach supreme states in spite of the underdeveloped status of an economy. Greatest artistic achievements can be attained even when the productive forces are at an elementary state, as is shown by the examples of Greek tragedy and Shakespearean theatre. Is this not an insightful way to make sense of the remarkable success of Sri Lankan arts – by which I mean, among others, the paintings of Jagath Weerasinghe, Chandraguptha Thenuwara, Koralegedara Pushpakumara, Pala Pothupitiya, the theatre of Rajitha Dissanayeke, Buddhika Damayantha, Dhananjaya Karunarathna, the literature of Liyanage Amarakeerthi, Manjula Wediwardana, Mohan Raj Madawala, Nishshanka Wijemanna, the cinema of Vimukthi Jayasundara, Asoka Handagama, Prasanna Withanage, Sudath Mahadivulwewa – when every other social domain within the boundaries of this nation state, perhaps with the exception of Cricket, seems to be falling into an endless abyss of decay and corruption?

Where ever one would like to posit himself or herself in the subsequent debates concerning the base/superstructure distinction, I think not many would disagree with me if I say that this is definitely a valid proposition with regard to this first ever Colombo International Film Festival.  An unprecedented event. Not just in the way the word ‘event’ is used in the party-planning industry but in a much more philosophical way.

If pushed to the wall, I would mimic the words of Catherine Malabou, the French philosopher, who said that cinema is the closest expression of the flux of consciousness – the spectator, staring at the screen, sitting in the dark, is witnessing the construction of a consciousness while, at the same time, witnessing the deconstruction of this same consciousness. It is a fragmented and dislocated consciousness, or, as the French like to put it, an impossible consciousness. We see too little and too much.

Imagine experiencing this process, witnessing this impossible consciousness, over 90 times, as it was shot through the lenses of 90 directors, from all parts of the globe. Not the kind of directors one usually encountered in Sri Lankan film theatres, busy showing the latest Hollywood and Bollywood ‘hits’, but those who would recognize themselves to be part of what goes by the name ‘art house cinema’. Directors summoned here not by their respective diplomatic administrators, nor by the dictates of the global capital, but through the solidarity of the international cinematic community. A true internationale! For a small island, far removed from the rich cultural interactions of continental life, this is an unprecedented experience.

Add to this all the exciting fringe events: a Masterclass with the Mexican director Carlos Reygadas, six film screenings celebrating the French actress Juliette Binoche, six film screenings celebrating the life work of Italian master Michelangelo Antonionio, selection of Spanish women directors’s work, films for children, a look at new Indian currents as well the novel trends in Sri Lankan cinema. The list seems endless.

Even though I am not a fan of the celebrity culture, I know that cinema, being the quintessentially modern mass art, is necessarily traversed by the split between its popular – ‘Hollywoodian’ – destiny and its own autonomous modernity that requires an involvement of the spectator differently. There has never been and there will never be a cinema without this necessary split. This is why we should welcome all the luminous glories this Festival will bring forth, from glamorous actors and actresses walking on red carpets to hundreds of camera lights flashing.

French philosopher Alain Badiou once remarked that it is perfectly possible to have historical sequences where politics, in its true sense, i.e. as a collective activity aimed at human emancipation, does not exist. He gives the examples of the end of the Roman empire and the reign of Louis XIV for such societies. It is one of my growing convictions that we too, at least in Southern Sri Lanka, are witnesses to such a historical sequence, and also that if this is truly a society without politics, it is in art that we must keep our faith – if we are to assume that a human being is not merely an animal whose sole purpose is to eat, drink and have sexual intercourse as long as it exists; if we are to still believe that the meaning of life is not just to consume as much commodities  as possible and expand our buying powers to fulfill this ultimate destiny; if we are to still believe that only men and women are capable of attaining the just, the beautiful and the true. It is in this regard that I do not hesitate to risk the hypothesis that the Colombo International Film Festival 2014 will mark the event of hope in these dark times. Let us all make it a success.

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    Looking at the issue from a different, but relevant, angle I find how
    much society in the Island suffers its own Separatism. While Tamils
    contributed, sometimes dominated, the local film world – and many
    significant contributions to the Stage in all 3 languages – Vangeesa Sumanasekera has no material to mention Tamils in his piece. So it is
    true, as many argue, the emotional Separatism between the two major communities arrived many years ago. What is left is to formally accept the inevitable reality – in all honesty.

    I must add, however, this does not mean two different countries in the current changed context – at each others throats. There is much space for both Sinhala and Tamil Nations to live separately in the island, as they did for centuries before. Unity in diversity, if you like.

    R. Varathan

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      Vangeesa Sumanasekara,

      Ever since the Paras from India came to the Land of Native Veddah, it was calamity.

      All lies and imaginations were incorporated to the so-called Sinhala “Buddhist” culture, and they have been brainwash on that.

      Read and Comprehend, what Dr. Adikaram has to say.

      One such Sinhala, born in 1905, is Dr E W Adikaram. Well, Well, the core problem is the Para-Sinhala-”Buddhism”, Racism and Chauvinism, in the Land of Native Veddah Aethho. This was aided and abetted by the Dipawansa and Mahawansa. This is the Core sickness of the Para-Sinhalese “Buddhists”.

      Isn’t the Nationalist a Mental Patient?

      http://groundviews.org/2013/10/09/isnt-the-nationalist-a-mental-patient/

      Reproducing historic article by Dr E W Adikaram At a time when few practice what they preach, Lankan scholar, writer and social activist Dr E W (Edward Winifred) Adikaram (1905-1985) was an illustrious exception. As a public intellectual, he had the courage of his convictions to speak out on matters of public interest — even when such views challenged widely held dogmas or went against populist trends. As a sceptical inquirer as well as a spiritualist, he always ‘walked his talk’. He never hesitated to take the often lonely (and sometimes bumpy) high road.

      Read on… Isn’t the Sinhala “Buddhist” a Mental Patient?

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    vangeesa
    How about a symposium on the Tamil contribution ot the Sinhala Film industry. That mat be a good start.
    Or else you analysis to be roll call of lain Badiou,Catherine Malabou,Marx, Shakespeare etc is pretty futile. Its just another attempt to hide behid lofty theory without much change

    jiva

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      Thank you, Oopla.

      I have met the late Gamini Fonseka at the home of my good friend the late KG Gunaratnam, Industrialist, who made a great contribution to Sinhala film-making and the industry – as Gamini gratefully recalled. There was a Mr. Nayagam from the Ragama area, who was in film-making. Rukmani Devi, I believe, was a Tamil Daniel from the Negombo area. There were many music directors and in other areas of the industry who helped advance the fledgling Sinhala film industry until men like Lester James Peiris arrived in the scene and took it to the healthy heights it finds itself in currently.

      R. Varathan

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    Dear Jiva and Varathan,

    Thank you both for your comments, and I do agree that my list is hopelessly Sinhala-centric. Unfortunately, these are the artists that have moved me in different ways, and this does not by any means imply that that they are the ONLY artists of any worth to be mentioned in Sri Lanka. In fact, a friend of mine, for whom I have utmost respect, has emailed me today asking why I failed to mention the names Shanaathanan and Muhannad Cader. It is with extreme embarrassment that I confess that I am not aware of these artists’ work.

    I do not for a moment think that the influence of the Tamil arts to the Sinhala scene is less significant. I try really hard, for instance, to teach my students how Sarachchandra was immensely influenced by traditional Tamil dance in his great theater work.

    So I agree that it is primarily my fault that I am ignorant of the works of important Tamil and Muslim artists, and I will try to rectify that as soon as possible.

    Vangeesa

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      Vangeesa,

      It is comforting to know the domination and arrival of aggressive Pan-Buddhist Sinhala influence in national life and its rejection of all other has still left untouched elements of culture and decency such as the one you display. From the time I was a school-boy and until much older my impression of those believing in the Sinhala Buddhist way of life was they were pious, deeply religious, faithful to the Dhamma, lived and conducted themselves in a manner not causing harm or inconvenience to those of other religions and cultures neither by deed, word or thought. That I think is the centric feature of this great philosophic tradition from the Indian soil.

      How magnificent it will be if we are able to see the restoration of the Status Quo in our times where the Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, Islamic traditions are to respect and live each others lives in tolerance and yet learn from the wealth of each others great religious traditions. I know in India, where I visit often, the academic community today try this out in many States beginning in the higher institutions of education. It is slowly but surely taking roots there.

      R. Varathan

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    Vangeesa …thanks for your reply.
    Glad that there are still gentleman here who can own up to their limitations. Thats really hard to include my own own liitations of discourse. Now a conversation can begin….

    Edirweera Sarathchndra made huge contributions to Sri Lankan theatre. But whilst being a humble and great man he carved out a territory that equals Sri Lankan theatre to be exclusively Sinhala theatre. Hope with your film projects we can go beyond that.

    cheers

    jiva

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    here is a wonderfull article( work in progress) of Bharata Natyam in Sinhala Films
    http://cinemanrityagharana.blogspot.com.au/2014/06/bharatanatyam-in-sri-lankan-sinhalese.html
    Sri Lankan Tamils in Sinhala Cinema..

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sri_Lankan_Tamils_in_Sinhala_Cinema

    or for that matter the first Sinhala film with gay subject lines is by a mixed race Sinhala/Tamil artist too. Vissa chandrasekaram

    http://www.goethe.de/ins/lk/en/col/ver.cfm?fuseaction=events.detail&event_id=20417115

    there is much more to unearth…

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      jiva,

      “or for that matter the first Sinhala film with gay subject lines is by a mixed race Sinhala/Tamil artist too. Vissa chandrasekaram”

      Yes.

      The Para-Sinhala and Para-Tamils are a mixed race who came from South India, by Illegal boats, Hora Oru , Kallathonis to Lanka, the Land of Native Veddah Aethho.

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