Documenting the documentary
“Documentaries are just not my favourite kind of movie watching. The fact is I don’t trust the little bastards. I don’t trust the nature of those who think they are superior to fiction films, I don’t trust their claim to have cornered the market on the truth, I don’t trust their inordinately high, and entirely underserved, status of bourgeois respectability.”
Strong words – and especially ironic as they form the opinion of Marcel Ophüls, one of the great masters of documentary film-making. Those who have seen his powerful The Sorrow and the Pity (1969), about the schizophrenic way the French responded to Nazi occupation – some becoming resistance fighters, some collaborators – will know what I mean.
|A still from Song Of Ceylon|
Like Ophül, many film critics have reservations regarding documentaries. As historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. remarked: “The line between the documentary and the fiction film is tenuous indeed. Both are artifacts: both are contrivances. Both are created by editing and selection. Both, wittingly or not, embody viewpoint.”
Another concern is the tendency of films to lull the critical powers of viewers. Nevertheless, it is apparent that documentaries have potential benefits – to inform, move, inspire, to promote positive social change, to strengthen group identities and to provide glimpses of the world beyond our knowledge. Presumably it was the belief in such benefits that inspired Ophüls to continue making documentaries despite his professional mistrust of the form.
It all started in 1926 with the following statement: “Of course, Moana, being a visual account of events in the daily life of a Polynesian youth and his family, has documentary value.” Thus wrote John Grierson -the founder of the pioneering British documentary movement, who ran the artistically-free General Post Office (GPO) Film Unit - in a review of the sequel to the revolutionary Nanook of the North (1921). This ‘actuality’ film (i.e. made prior to Grierson’s coinage), the first example of what was later called docu-fiction, was directed by the American pioneer Robert Flaherty.
While this was the first use of “documentary” in connection with film, what we understand by the word precedes Grierson. In fact, documentary can be traced back to the very birth of cinema, for it began in 1895 with documentary material such as the films of the Lumière brothers – The Arrival of the Train, A Sea Bath, Demolition, and Leaving the Factory.
But audiences soon lost interest in watching trains arriving at stations (at first inexperience was such that audiences fled their seats with the screening of an oncoming train). As the theoretician Brian Winston remarked: “Audiences in the 1890s required what they expected of older media – stories, narratives with beginnings, middles, dénouements, ends. Only when Flaherty began to structure his actuality material so that it might satisfy those needs could Grierson detect a new form and name it ‘documentary.’”
As it happens, in the adventurous early documentary era, Ceylon inspired one of the finest examples ever made, an experimental work that featured extraordinary modernist visual-sound collages. In 1971, while I attended a British Film Institute course on Realist cinema, and before I had visited the island, there was a screening of Song of Ceylon (1935), produced by Grierson at the GPO for the Ceylon Tea Propaganda Board. It was directed by Basil Wright, who was among a number of talented film-makers working for Grierson. This screening remains the most significant cinematic experience of my life.
Wright started with the parochial The Country Comes to Town and O’er Hill and Dale (1932). He then travelled to the Caribbean, where he demonstrated a penchant for exotic locations and developed a symphonic style – an ideal preparation for Song of Ceylon - with Windmill in Barbados and Cargo from Jamaica (1933).
I viewed Song of Ceylon in Wright’s company. Afterwards I asked him about filming in Ceylon. He said the island was the most entrancing country he had worked in. (See “An Island on the Screen: The 70th Anniversary of Song of Ceylon”, The Sunday Times, October 31, 2004.) He later directed The Waters of Time (1950), World without End (1953), co-directed with Paul Rotha, and Immortal Land (1958).
Song of Ceylon wasn’t the first documentary about the island, for there are at least two much earlier actuality films, Charles Urban’s A Ramble through Ceylon (1910) and Curious Scenes in India (1912). On YouTube can be found James FitzPatrick’s travelogues Charming Ceylon (1931) and Tropical Ceylon (1932) - a far cry from the quality of Song of Ceylon - which have condescending, sometimes racist narrations employing words such as “primitive”, “child-like”, and “effeminacy”. Wright had the intelligence to choose passages from Robert Knox for his script.
During the Second World War British military film units shot much footage, some of which, concerning the British Eastern Fleet operating out of Trincomalee, has been gathered together. The indigenous documentary film industry began at Independence in 1948 when equipment from the disbanded film units was given to the government. Consequently the Government Film Unit (GFU) was born.
You would be forgiven for not realizing that September 2008 is the 60th anniversary of the GFU, established to produce documentary films on development, social and artistic aspects of the newly-independent nation. These documentaries were not only viewed in cinemas prior to the main feature, but also in impromptu fashion in villages, thanks to vehicles equipped with projectors and screens.
Although the country was seeking a post-Independence identity, the lack of Ceylonese technical personnel necessitated the recruitment of outsiders – in the first instance two Italians, Gulio Petroni and Federico Serra. Restricted to one room in the Department of Irrigation, the fledgling GFU began by producing short news films such as Ceylon’s Farewell to the Sanchi Relics (1949), and Air Ceylon’s New Wings (1949), regarding the delivery of two Skymaster planes.
Within a year the GFU was shifted to an ex-British armed services cinema on a Moratuwa coconut estate that had a dubbing theatre and film processing laboratory. There the first documentaries of significance, Hill Capital (1950) and New Horizons (1951), were produced, both directed by Petroni. The latter explained the government’s colonization programme, but Prime Minister DS Senanayake didn’t appreciate it and Petroni departed in 1952.
The Film Producers’ Guild in London sent Ralph Keene, a leading light of the second wave of British documentary-makers, who had directed New Britain (1940), Crofters (1944), and Cyprus is an Island (1946). Keene had travelled to Ceylon before to make String of Beads (1947) for the Ceylon Tea Propaganda Board, but he lacked Wright’s feeling for the culture. His first GFU film, which he wrote rather than directed, was Fishermen of Negombo (1952). The director was George Wickremasinghe, consequently the pioneer of indigenous documentary-making.
Keene then directed Heritage of Lanka (1952), about Mihintale, Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Sri Pada, and Nelungama (1953), the story of a village and its people. He left for Malaysia soon afterwards and Wickremasinghe became head of the GFU.
In 1954, the GFU was shifted to its present site in Polhengoda, equipped with an especially-built studio, editing suite, laboratory and film library. Now was the time for Ceylonese directors to cut their teeth. Amid the scores of films made during the halcyon years of the 1950s, Lester James Peries’ Conquest of the Dry Zone (1954), on the measures adopted to combat malaria, received a special mention at the Venice Film Festival.
George Wickremasinghe’s The Kandy Esala Perahera (1958) won awards at three international film festivals. Pragnasoma Hettiarachchi’s Makers, Motives and Materials (1958), concerning the making of traditional handicrafts, was awarded the Golden Mercury Prize at the Venice Film Festival.
Irwin Dassanaike’s The Living Wild (1959), on Ceylon’s wildlife, and incorporating unique footage of Veddahs, received an honourable mention at the Vancouver International Film Festival. Pragnasoma Hettiarachchi’s Rhythms of the People (1959), about southern folk songs and dances, received an honourable mention at the Karlovy Vary International Festival.
There was a notable non-GFU production during this period, Englishman Mike Wilson’s Beneath the Seas of Ceylon (1957), the first underwater film concerning the island, sponsored like Song of Ceylon and String of Beads by the Ceylon Tea Propaganda Board.
By the mid-1960s the GFU had reached a state of creative stagnation, partly due to the uninspiring films commissioned - Ceylon Toys (1961), Ceylon Asbestos (1963), and Poultry (1966). Basil Wright expressed willingness to help out, as the following letter he wrote to George Wickremasinghe indicates:
“The length of my stay in Ceylon would depend on the size and scope of the film or films to be made . . . As regards technical assistance, I have the impression that you have a well-equipped and experienced Unit, members of which I would be glad to work with.” But Wright never made his return to the island. Bureaucratic indifference resulted in a consummate opportunity being squandered.
However, the renowned German director Paul Zils joined the GFU during 1968-69. A favourite of Goebbel, he had fled Nazism but was arrested in Bali by the British in the Second World War and made a POW. But his film-making was appreciated and on release he was appointed head of Information Films of India, similar to the GFU, and directed many excellent films on the country, pioneering the Indian documentary movement. He also made Buddhism in Ceylon (1963). On his second visit he directed Meditation (1968), a beautiful, reflective docu-fiction about a middle-aged doctor who, after reviewing his life, decides to become a Buddhist monk.
My thumbnail documentation of the documentary in Sri Lanka ceases at this point. After 1970 the GFU never regained its former glory: besides, the ‘pure’ form of documentary epitomized by Song of Ceylon was over. A new age of non-fiction film had dawned. And a decade later the advent of television in Sri Lanka was inevitably deleterious. Nevertheless, the GFU remains to celebrate its 60th birthday.
The pioneer who dedicated his wide knowledge of cinematography for amelioration of the cinema industry notches 90 years on April 05, 2009. The inestimable contribution made by this great son of Sri Lanka to bring Sinhala cinema to the pinnacle of its glory is historical.
At the time the Indian film industry had an influence on Sri Lanka, monopolizing their power of technology in the production of films, the cultural background here was almost South Indian. Sri Lankan producers were inclined to produce films on a commercial basis caused by the want of technical infrastructure. It was then that this young cameraman contemplated to exert his cinematic know how towards resilience of the film industry by his influence on productions depicting indigenous culture. He is the world acclaimed cinematographer, Dr Lester James Peiris, who established the global image of Sri Lanka in the cinema industry.
Lester James Peiris was born to a reputed Roman Catholic family in Dehiwala on April 05, 1919, whose residence was known as ‘Sinhagiri’. His father Dr James Francis Peiris was a medical doctor who graduated in Scotland. Ms Ann Gertrude Winifred Jayasuriya, a student of St. Bridget’s Convent, Colombo, was his mother who became the first girl to pass the Senior Cambridge Examination from the same school. He had two brothers, Ivan & Noel and a sister Erica. His brother Ivan, a skilled painter was a close associate of the internationally famous artist George Keit. Lester’s life was significantly influenced by these professional artists. He started his preliminary studies at St. Mary’s Primary College, Dehiwala, later known as Holy Family Convent and later joined St. Peter’s College, Bambalapitiya.
He was more attentive to lectures on the arts, inspired by the films he was fortunate to watch through projectors made available to him. He was 11- years- old when he was ptedented with a 8 mm Kodasco projector by his father. He started writing to the blue pages of the ‘Ceylon Daily News’ at the age of 17. In 1939 he joined the ‘Times of Ceylon’ newspaper and displayed his skills under the Indian editor Frank Moraes and also reviewed books over Radio Ceylon (now SLBC). "The Teacher" & "The Saree" are two short stories written by him. In the view of Prof. Sunil Ariyaratne, the young Lester enjoyed the presentation of the book called "Cathedral and a Star" authored by him to Pandith Sri Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India.
Lester traveled to England in 1947 as advised by his mother to join his brother Ivan, who was on a scholarship in London. This young journalist of competent skills in journalism, wrote articles to the ‘Ceylon Daily News’ column from London on the request of the editor Moraes under the heading "Letter on Arts from London".
Lester’s debut in production was the "Farewell to Childhood" in 1950, a short film based on the story written by him called "Saree". The Amateur Cine World Silver Plaque was awarded to this experimental film among the 10 best films produced in Great Britain. His second film was "A Sinhalese Dance" and the final film "Soliloquy" was produced in London in 1951, a 20 minute short film based on a threefold love story. The Mini Cinema Cup for short films was awarded to this production for its best technical proficiency by the Institute of Amateur and Experimental Film Makers’ Festival-Great Britain (1951).
On his return to Sri Lanka Lester joined the Government Film Unit (GFU) and worked with Ralph Keene, who was the director of GFU. In the first instance Lester assisted Keene to make a documentary film "Nelungama". Later two documentary films, "Conquest in the Dry Zone" (1954), on the Malaria epidemic and "Be Safe" or "Be Sorry" (1955),were produced for the GFU by him. The film, "Conquest in the Dry Zone" won the Diploma of Honor at the Venice Film Festival in 1954. He left the GFU in 1955 after he formed his ambition to produce Sinhala films on his own.
Significantly, the year 1956 became historic by the revolutionary changes that took effect in political, social and cultural fields in Sri Lanka in the interest of the entire nation. "Rekhawa", the debut production, disporting his extraordinary knowledge in the techniques of the film industry, by Lester James Peiris in December 1956, earned him a great reputation as the best production in Sri Lankan cinema. Starting from his masterly production "Rekhawa", this great cinematographer accredited with an abundance of knowledgeable skills in film industry, elevated the Sri Lankan cinema to the zenith of its glory by numerous films, winning international awards, an inestimable honour to the nation.
Dr Lester James Peiris has directed around 20 films during the last 50 years of his experience in the film industry, enlivening Sri Lankan cinema with accolade after accolade, both locally and abroad. Sri Lankan nation owes him a debt of gratitude for his immeasurably high quality productions of international acclaim, namely, Rekhawa (Line of Destiny 1956), Sandeshaya (The Message 1960), Gamperaliya (Changing Village 1964), Delovak Athara (Between Two Worlds 1966), Ran Salu (The Yellow Robe 1967), Golu Hadawatha (The Silence of the Heart 1968), Akkara Paha (Five Acres of Land 1969), Nidhanaya (The Treasure 1970), Desa Nisa (The Eyes 1972), The God King (1975), Madol Duwa (Enchanted Island 1976), Ahasin Polowata (White Flowers for the Dead 1978), Pinhami (1979), Veera Puran Appu (Rebellion 1979), Baddegama (Village in the Jungle 1980), Kaliyugaya (The Era of Kalli – The Changing Village Part II, 1982), Yuganthaya (The Changing Village Part III, 1983), Awaragira (The Sunset 1995), Wekande Wallauwa (Mansion by the Lake 2002) and Amma Varune (Mothers 2007).
In addition to his contributions of documentary films to the GFU, Lester produced 10 documentary films on requests by various other institutions. Among them were, "Too Many and too Soon" (1961), "Home from the Sea" (1962), "Forward into the Future" (1964), "Steel" (1969), "Forty Leagues from Paradise" (1970), "A Dream of Kings" (1971) and "Kandy Perahera" (1971).
Appreciative expressions on the perceptive vision of Dr Lester James Peiris have been articulated by world renowned professionals on many occasions. It is related in the book authored by Ronald Fernando that the popular Indian super star, late Raj Kapoor, highly impressed by the movie "Rekhawa" had recommended to Sri Lankan producer K.Gunaratnam, to utilize the talents of this consummate cinematographer, Lester, in his future productions. In consequence Mr Gunaratnam offered the direction of his film "Sandeshaya" to Lester James who exhibited a marvellous array of innate skills in his performance as the director, to bring the film to the pinnacle of international acclaim.
Remarkably, a number of books have been written by various scholars on the life of this reputable character and his award winning productions. In addition, a documentary film by the name, "The Foot Steps of an Asian Master", was directed by Neil I.Perera in 1985 and another film "The World of Peiris" directed by Bickram Singhare on behalf of the Ministry of External Affairs, India.
He not only won the first international award for Sri Lanka in London in the early ‘50s but also achieved the Golden Peacock Award presented by Delhi International Awards and Golden Head of Palenque Award from Mexico World Film Festival for "Gamperaliya", a story which turned a new page in Sri Lankan cinema as the best film. It was Lester who represented Sri Lanka with his film "Rekhawa", first at the Cannes Film Festival in 1957. The number of local awards won by him from Rekhawa to Amma Varune, is a potent estimation of his exemplary contribution to Sri Lankan cinema. Recognition of his productions at high degree of excellence by the international cinema not only demands absolute technique but involves tremendous amount of dedication and determined effort. In appreciation of his invaluable contribution to cinema he was honoured with the title Commander in the Order of Arts and Letters by the Government of France in 1997, The Lifetime Achievement Award and the Golden Lotus by the Government of India at Delhi International Film Festival and the Asian Cinema Person at Cannes International Film Festival. He has also discreetly performed an extraordinary service as a member of the jury at the International Film Festival with distinctive responsibility. The entire nation is profoundly delighted by the global tribute of high regard extended to this indomitable personality over his intellectual expertise in the film industry.
He was felicitated by his own nation with the title Kala Keerthi in 1980, issue of a stamp to mark his birthday in 2002, highest honour of Sri Lankabhimanaya in 2007, naming Dickman’s Rd as Dr Lester James Peiris Mawatha and a new orchid flower named after Lester James Peiris by M.L.SW.Wanigathunga , chairman of Lakmalsala Amerasekera. It is significant that he was honoured with doctorates by the Universities of Colombo and Peradeniya in 1985 & 2003 respectively.
The latest felicitation for this doyen of Sri Lankan cinema is from UNESCO , the world’s most prestigious institution for culture for his Gamperaliya production.
Dr. Lester James Peiris’ ‘Sonduru Minisa’ has exalted the image of Sri Lanka in the global cinema with a high degree of respect. He is regarded as a leading cinematographer along with world renowned Satyajith Ray of India and Akerawar Korusowa of Japan. The resplendent contribution made by Lester to Sri Lankan cinema will be etched in the memories of the citizenry of Sri Lanka.