4 December, 2023


Festivals: Beyond Films – Framing A Social Norm

By Suren Rāghavan

Dr. Suren Rāghavan

Dr. Suren Rāghavan

I am not a film maker of any category. Neither I research nor teach on cinema. I am, like the many millions, a film lover. May be with above average interest in that magic and social power of cinema- borrowed from some of my film industry relatives. I am trained in one subject – political science – So quintessentially my lenses are colored in that direction. I sincerely congratulate the Sri Lanka Film Directors Guild led by my dear friend Asoka Handagama – whom I have confidently confessed to be Lanka’s most socially interventional film maker for the International Film Festival Colombo (IFFC) 2015. Their success in mounting this huge task without any state support for the second time is a fresh hope of civic/private activism in the field of arts in Lanka. The social impact that the IFF-C may be making is too early to be studied as one needs at least a cycle of 4 -5 years of any event for a fair qualitative analysis beyond the numbers that flock to see some hundred films during a week, all for free of charge. There are IFFs almost every week somewhere in every decent city in the contemporary world. No one seems to have an exact account of all the FFs happening. Some put it as high as 3000 a year while moderate accounts records at least 450 festivals in 2010.* In fact FFs may be another annexure to the ‘Golden Arch’ economic theory- as that McDonalds fast foods- are a sign of increased per capita. I am not sure of any social studies done if FFs are a sign of normalcy of a city in the neoliberal sense. That of course including Sudan – a state at war almost permanently. However, it is fair to assume that IFFC has for sure contributed to put Colombo on the growing FF industry and the international cine artists as well their wider society. In that sense in a country after three decades of war and a post war dictatorship IFFC is a healing breeze.

Film Festival

What is in a Festival?

Of course throughout the history of FFs since it’s first in 1933 in Vienna, the black tuxedo, glitter, pretty faces and chilled champagne are a ‘must have’ decorations. Even while it is paradox to witness the rigid rule following of a creative industry and how it impacts a generally simple society like Colombo. Festivals – in general- at least theoretically aims to provide enthusiasts as well as otherwise non-cinematic section of a society the opportunity to enjoy and engage with films otherwise not available. This engagement is designed to be public and in a community of collectivity that would invite the wider society especially the ones at the peripheries beyond the immediate middle class metro sexualities: those actors who make influence in the structural polity. It is this second, somewhat ‘none-glittering’ and hidden aim that would construct the soul of any FF from dusty Thiruvanandapuram to fashionable Montréal. If such aim is not the conscious part of a festival they will merely stand as mega marketing events of new brand of entertainment. Cinema is a far too serious form of art to be left at a dinner table in business dress – especially in a South Asian society – where films are tightly knitting social architects. Festival surely work as a merging point for all aspects of the industry and spark new interest and engagement. At IFF- C, I witness such wider engagement and interest from film criticism to lectures on short film making that happens as side show. That is surely remarkable for a festival only in its second year. However, there exists a very common (mis)conception that festivals must showcase the world best and most talked about films that have done the festival rounds. Such will make a good business sense but whether that will facilitate the much needed social dialogue in a given society is suspected. Because whether one agree or not FFs are social event cutting across the established hegemony of political dialogue of a society. As seen in 2014 IFFC, Asoka and the team managed to screen films that were banned or did not have the formal censor board green light. This in turn paved the path for the authorities not only to lift the ban on some serious local films but also engage with the meaning of the entire censorship ideology. This may not have been on the agenda of many organizers for their apolitical stand – at least publicly. However, the direct politics and the political implication of the festival cannot be denied. That is exactly what films and their festivals do. They construct a horizontal common person ideology that is contemporary with the rest of the globalized world and softly or at time even very directly- challenge the vertical structure of powers. Festival organizers cannot undermine that sociopolitical responsibility.

There are two seemingly contradictory dynamic forces at operation in very good festival. One, the glamour and the glitter ‘photo show’ at the surface level and the other the ‘political show’ – a true governmentality of a socially engaging film community. Surely the first one is a one- night- stand and the other is a fundamental intervention for a society like Lanka that is searching political direction in her 67 years of postcolonial journey.

Films beyond festivity

As the festival success will magnet more business, media and even politics every passing year, Asoka led team will be forced to ask some serious questions and search collective and transparent answers. How does the IFFC differ qualitatively and sociologically from other festivals in the region and at global level? In what way and how does IFFC hope to (re)shape the Lankan film industry and its culture? What does IFFC hope to contribute to the life in city of Colombo – where 1.5 million people live and another 500,000 commute daily yet so sadly there are only a handful of (usable) public washrooms to begin with? What does IFFC hope to finally contribute to the film goer and the non-film lover in Lanka? Of course these are questions without easy or off-the-self answers. Yet it is only when we are aware of the questions that we can even imagine the possible solutions. Can IFFC work as a two way conduit that is while bringing international film to Lanka, take Lanka films to the international audience as done in Toronto or American Showcase festivals? 
Here remains a key question not just technical in nature but structural and indeed (para) political. Lanka, comparative to its population, technical advancements and geo location, had a commendable film industry prior to the 1983 especially in the late 70s. The commercial success of middle path and intellectual cinema in Lanka made waves even in the neighboring Kerala where a strong independent film industry is established. The works of Dharmasena Pathiraja, Dharmasiri Bandaranaike and Wasantha Obeysekara (ironically two notable absentees at IFFC) gathered international attention to Colombo. Apparently we had even more cinema halls then than now. 1983 ethnic pogrom that displaced many Colombo based Tamils dismantled the national film industry as they had a greater position of ownership and involvement. Now the war is over, the fear of someone planting a human bomb in a crowded cinema theater fortunately is of the past. It is at this point that IFFC ought to reflect how might IFFC be considered a key institutional mechanism on key policy formulation and contribution towards (re)formulating a truly national cinema that represent the heartbeat of every nation sharing this island? And what intersection each year can bring to make IFFC a truly indigenously rooted but internationally focused festival. What is the wider possibly that IFFC stands as an annual point of social discourse of our polity and its democratic depth? How about the academic and technical advancement of film studies and film archives? Can IFFC help the National Film Corporation to be a truly citizen owned /operated watch dog for the canonizing a philosophical advancement of Lankan cinema? Janet Staiger (1994) in her worthy essay “The Politics of Film Canons” is raising such fundamentally transformative questions. How Canada- comparatively small player in the global film industry has achieved such is explained in by Peter Morris (1994) in his “In Our Own Eyes: The Canonizing of Canadian Film’.

Politics of (non)Profit

No festival is possible without the needed funding. So far as we are informed the IFFC is possible because of the generous grants made of Okinawa Film Trust, surely a great friend. Here remains the opportunity as much the threat. Can IFFC be a totally locally funded event? The reason is not some primordial nazionalsozialist paradigm but to be able to construct a film industry that is earned and engaged by Lankans representing their commitment to the field of cinema. In that process – as a young cine activist recently quarreled to disagree with me – even the ‘sarong wearing gamaraala’ can be proud part of our cinema. It is such gamaraalas in places like Kerala and West Bengal constructed cinema cooperative funds which made socially sensitive political cinema independently. If not Lankan cinema may face the same fate as the peace process that failed. Enjoyed by many built by none. An over internationalization that up rooted the indigenous trunk root. If one does not agree, it is unfortunate but undoubtedly the postwar democratic politics in Lanka is at its existential juncture. The hopes of a clean governance and its transparent accountability to the citizens seems to be melting at the edge rapidly. We may be not lucky to usher a liberal democracy that soon, when the ministers of Justice and Law/Order are accused of gargantuan level of corruption. If the hopes are meek and not getting concretized, then the role of the film director/ individually and collectively is paramount. Lanka cinema has been a brave frame for sharp sociopolitical discourses in its subtlety. The state actors may be happy that under their rule Colombo is getting marketed as a city of cinema lovers. Surely beyond such fringe benefits IFFC cannot escape the responsibility of contributing to the ideological transformation that is urgently and systematically needed in this island to prevent a repeat of the extreme ethnoreligious nationalism of both sides of the divide. How IFFC is doing that or hoping to do so is an inescapable question. Those tens of thousands of fans eagerly queuing up at selected cinema halls in Colombo may not ask this from the organizers. However, they who will go and decided the kind of government we will create in 2020 or before. Therefore it is to those crucial actors we ought to show the value of liberal democracy in a multi-nations state. Cinema, in my judgement is a powerful social language. The primary objective of IFFC cannot be anything less than that. Because it is not the rate of success that really matters but the normative value for which real interventional cinema can stands for- even in Colombo as it has happened in Havana, Sarajevo and at Midnight Sun**. Two steps are too early to conclude anything firmly. However, two steps can decided the direction of a long journey.

I wish Asoka and his team all the success or a great festival and beyond.

*Dr. Suren Rāghavan, PhD
is a Senior Research Fellow at Centre for Buddhist Studies – University of Oxford. 
Indian cinema is one of his key hobby areas. 


Janet Staiger, “The Politics of Film Canons/’ in Multiple Voices in Feminist Film Criticism, ed. Diane Carson, Linda Dittmar, and Janice R. Welsch (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994), 191-209

Peter Morris, “In Our Own Eyes: The Canonizing of Canadian Film/’ Canadian Journal of Film Studies 3, no. 1 (spring 1994): 27-44.

* http://www.filmfestivals.com/

** Kenneth Turan (2002) in her sharp analysis of festivals catalogues the festivals accordingly these festivals stand out for sociopolitical contribution See: Sundance to Sarajevo Film Festivals and the World They Made, London: University of California Press

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Latest comments

  • 0

    Hats off to the Colombo IFF which is a wonderful feast for the heart, soul and intellect. Thanks to Okinawa, Japanese Donors and the home team headed by Prasana and very good and progressive people.

    The author of this piece should do a study of the audience and a perception strudy. Mostly the audience is youthful – the IFF locations are good and near the university and so many students also seem to attend and most people I met were very happy and loved the film festival which transports us to new worlds and thoughts..

    The films are of a wide variety, socially and politically, engaged and high quality – unlike some of the European Union Colombo Film Festival films which were clearly second rate. The IFF in Colombo will contribute to socio-political education and debate and opening up, and raise the standard of local productions with the exposure it brings..

    This festival is a feast and offers too many good things in too short a time – should be done twice a year with repeats of some of the movies since it is hard to be in 2 placed at the same time and sometimes there were 3 good films running in different venues at the same time. Thanks again to Okinawa – Japanese donors and all who made it possible in Colombo. Great job!

  • 0

    Dear Dinuk,

    Generally I don’t respond to comments without proper, real names/people
    but I assume you are real.
    you said
    “The author of this piece should do a study of the audience and a perception study.”

    precisely. The core point in my essay is that. I too argue that the IFFC to be more sociologically engage as a true event study of urban anthropology via cinema.

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