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.