Sri Lanka’s first film school: In Conversation with Sanjeewa Pushpakumara

Sri Lanka’s first film school: In Conversation with Sanjeewa Pushpakumara
Illustration by Daisy Harrison-Broninski Copyright 2020

The Civil Society Review editor Bertie Harrison-Broninski talks to Sanjeewa Pushpakumara, multi-award winning filmmaker and Course Director for the Sri Lanka Film School.

Sanjeewa Pushpakumara’s “lockdown diary” opens with two brief shots of school murals in Colombo, Sri Lanka. With no people present, these two-dimensional children gardening and studying test tubes become shadow subjects, remnants of what was, faded paint flaking from their happy faces. 

The short film (titled Through the Mango Tree) is part of a larger project run by Film Independent called A Window of Time, which asked twenty-one international filmmakers to create “short videos about life under quarantine in their part of the world”. Pushpakumara, whose film is the first in the anthology, is known for his feature-length dramas Igillena Maluwo (Flying Fish) and Davina Vihagun (Burning Birds), which brought accolades for their emotive confrontations with the Sri Lankan Civil War. 

Yet the reflection on the empty schools of 2020 in Through the Mango Tree is pertinent from Pushpakumara, as he’s recently branched out from filmmaking, to become an educator as well. When I first met him in 2018, he had expressed to me the need for a Sri Lankan Film School, and had been spending time touring universities screening films and holding talks. His description of the uphill struggle for aspiring Sri Lankan filmmakers was bleak: 

“The country doesn’t have any supportive programs, so anyone that wants to be a filmmaker has to do their own sale. They have to learn by themselves because we don’t have a filmmaking program. Even after they make their own films they don’t have a proper mechanism to screen their films in the country, because all the circuits are belonging to a few people, who [only] screen films that they think will make money. Some young filmmakers, they are waiting in the list, still waiting, more than six or seven years [for screenings]. This is a very sad story, you know. After they made their first film they are still waiting six, seven years to screen them. How bad is that? What a waste of the creative energy of young people in this country.”

Little did I know at the time that Pushpakumara’s anger would so soon come to fruition: within months of speaking to me he had become a founding staff member and the course leader for the new Sri Lanka Film School. As the academic calendar came to a close, I reached out to him back in May eager  to hear about the experience of launching a country’s only film school in such a tumultuous year. 

Pushpakumara told me that not only has the academic calendar ended in the midst of the Covid-19 crisis, but the school’s founding was “badly affected” by deaths during the Easter terrorist bombings that occurred in 2019 across Colombo, Negombo and Batticaloa. “That is with the beginning, and then with the end of the first year, we’re again badly affected by the Covid situation. So these two incidents heavily affected the life of school.” 

While some classes continued online, many were postponed for months, and when we spoke Pushpakumara expected there to be “some changes about the semester” dates in order to push the June deadline for the course back. “With a subject like filmmaking, it’s not possible always to have online classes,” he explained; “it’s not possible that lecturers should go to students and analyse their works, for example editing or cinematography. It’s not just like other subjects, you know.”

Yet filmmaking doesn’t appear to be all that the Sri Lanka Film School does teach its students; looking over its website I was amazed by the breadth of curriculum. The school has three lecturers in history of art, three in literature, as well as lecturers in psychoanalysis, modern Sri Lankan political history, philosophy, and architecture. As the school’s course leader, I asked Pushpakumara why the courses have such broad syllabi. He told me that “when it comes to filmmaking in a Sri Lankan context, we are so behind to produce proper storytelling films. So then I found that [Sri Lankan film] students do not have great access or connection with literature and other subjects like painting and philosophy. So I thought, yeah, we’ll help to teach students these subjects, especially for the script writers, you know? And the painting, especially for the cinematographers. If you meet most Sri Lankan filmmakers, they don’t know about painting, they just know about the technical things. So I thought these things are more important to make a prolific filmmaker or a quality script writer.”

When I spoke to Pushpakumara in 2018, I was struck by the fact that, despite a history of personal difficulties with the Sri Lankan government and state over the topics of his filmmaking, he told me that the major barrier for films such as his was “not the government. It’s a different kind of censor board I feel that’s how the market is working.” This ‘censor board’ referred most directly to “theatre owners”, but more broadly to the cultural institutionalisation of arts censorship across the country. 

This thinking is still evident in his 2020 description of how the school was formed. Initially approached by senior politician Sarrath Kongahage to start a film course, Pushpakumara replied “what we need, it’s not a film course. We need a film school.” The conversation was successful; Kongahage is now the principal of the school, alongside being a member of Parliament and president of the Diplomatic Council. In order to offset the influence of conservative civil society (such as the “theatre owners”), Pushpakumara understood the need to institutionalise the teachings of his course within a school. And, as he told me, Sri Lanka was the only country in South Asia bar the Maldives not to have one. 

I asked if Pushpakumara sees film itself as an educational vehicle; if he’s hoping that his students’ films will spread the cultural education he’s giving them to people watching who won’t get to study at the Sri Lanka Film School. He concedes that at the least, people will “learn cinema too by watching cinema.” However, in terms of broader cultural education than the art of filmmaking, “I think with this moment, it is not possible make a change by just watching, you know?” 

In the long-term, he does hope his students’ future careers will change the film scene in the country. “What we are doing right now, it takes time. It’s not going to happen in the next year. It would happen five years or six years later; for that we have to prepare these students to support that [change]. So now what we are trying to do is to make a proper ground for cultivations, and then the harvest will come in five, six years.”

He stated that a persistent barrier at the moment is that he does not “think that the government are fully aware about this course, this program.” The lines between whether the school operates as a public, private, or charitable body seem blurred; “it’s definitely, uh, within the government institution, but it’s not government funding. The student has to pay for studies.” This latter point is Pushpakumara’s major concern with the pandemic disruptions; “People have lost their incomes. So in this context, I don’t think that the students are in a position that they could pay their next instalment. If the students don’t pay their next instalment, we cannot run the school; we need that money to pay for the lecturers, and the resources and instruments that we are hiring from outside. So they are always expecting money from the students. And that’s why we need support from the government. This is the thing that I’m trying to convince the National Film Corporation and Cultural Ministry and the Sri Lanka Foundation but I haven’t found a real connection to approach them.”

What inroads they had been making all collapsed with the pandemic. “We are trying to meet high-government official peoples but it wasn’t possible since this Covid-19. So because that now the government are dealing with bigger issues than the film school in the country, dealing with the political issues, economic issues, in a country like us the cultural sector is the last one, you know? So therefore I will have to wait until the proper time to approach them. I don’t know when the proper time [will be].”

Despite this, when I asked if there’s any message I could help him platform, he insisted that he was not interested in international help. “The problem is now that I would ask for so many things, but since the whole world is in such a difficult situation, we cannot ask support from anyone else now, you know? That’s why I’m just not able to ask any support from the outside world right now, because I know how difficult a time they are passing. Some countries are affected with this Covid situation more than Sri Lanka actually.”After three minutes of shots of empty streets, Through the Mango Tree ends with a slow pan down to show the cameraman’s feet, and then a sudden change of pace as the feet begin walking. Perhaps it symbolises that after months in isolation, the nation can return to its own ‘feet’. When I interviewed Pushpakumara for another outlet in 2018, I concluded by saying that “I am optimistic that the day will come when Sri Lanka has a film school, and an international and domestic industry that supports challenging dramas as well as commercial entertainment.” The first half of that prediction was realised almost immediately: perhaps in another eighteen months there will be a new story to tell.

Bertie Harrison-Broninski is the general editor of The Civil Society Review, and Secretary for Oxford Omnia International. He is currently studying an MA in Investigative Journalism at City, University of London.

The Sri Lanka Film School Website can be found here. Sanjeewa Pushpakumara can be followed on twitter here.


The Civil Society Review is here!

The Civil Society Review is here!
Photo taken by Hugh Pomeroy in Madagascar, 2018

Oxford Omnia’s online journal, The Civil Society Review, has posted its first article since rebranding our old blog as a new outlet. For a taste of the kind of content you’re going to be seeing from The CSR, head on over to In Opinion and check out Hugh Pomeroy’s article on the dangers of westernisation in childcare work in Africa.


Vietnam Raises South China Sea Disputes at UNGA

Vietnam Raises South China Sea Disputes at UNGA
Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Pham Binh Minh giving a speech at thê UNGA

This is a translation for Oxford Omnia by Ky Nam Nguyen of an article on the Vietnamese news site, originally published in Vietnamese on 29th September 2019.

Why Ky Nam thinks this article is important; ‘though he didn’t mention China directly, Vietnam’s Deputy Prime Minister’s speech to UNGA on the 28th September confirmed expectations: that Vietnam would bring its case to the UN to mobilise international support in relation to the Vanguard Bank Incident in the South China Sea.’

Vietnam urges for respect for international law in the South China Sea.

“We urge relevant parties in the South China Sea to respect international law, especially the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea 1982, considered the Constitution of the oceans,” Pham Binh Minh stressed in his UNGA speech.

Being a conduit for the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean, the South China Sea has strategic importance to peace, security, and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region. The Deputy PM iterates that mutual efforts of relevant parties will bring on positive outcomes for resolving differences and conflicts.

“On multiple occasions Vietnam has voiced its concerns about the recent complicated developments in the South China Sea. Relevant countries should exercise self-restraint and refrain from unilateral actions that may escalate tensions at sea, settling disputes through peaceful measures in accordance with international law, including the UNCLOS,” said Pham Binh Minh, restating the country’s stance on the current territorial dispute between China and Vietnam.

Leading to this moment, since the 4th July 2019, the day the Haiyang Dizhi 8 survey ship and its escorting forces started illegal surveying operations in the Exclusive Economic Zone of Vietnam, spokesperson for Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs Le Thi Thu Hang has denounced these acts at least five times, demanding China to end its maritime law violations at once.

Vietnam has also communicated with the Chinese on many governmental levels, asking the country to respect international law, sovereign rights and jurisdiction of Vietnam within its territorial seas. 

International law is the basis of equitable relationships between states

In his UN speech, Pham Binh Minh also recalled the hard-learned lessons in “the bloodiest chapter in mankind’s history”, World War II.

The horrendous price of the war helped nations realise the necessity for a centralised security system predicated on multilateral control and international law, as a foundation for post-war world order. That decision has proven to be judicious. 

However, multilateralism is facing the challenge of opting between reserved national interests and collective values; competition and confrontation between great powers are favoured over collaboration, dialogue, and respect for international law.

Pointing out the realities, PM Pham Binh Minh emphasised other global challenges that no countries are immune to, weak or strong, such as climate change, environmental degradation and other lurking conflict risks.

The advancement of science and technology has brought about new weapons and means of warfare. Military expenses are at their highest in history, as the world veers in the direction of a new Cold War. 

In that context, Pham Binh Minh urged all nations to collectively revive multilateralism and consolidate the United Nations mechanisms. States must unanimously enact laws and abide by those laws.

“International law is the foundation for equitable relationships between countries. All actions must be in accordance with and respectful of international law. Vietnam believes that upholding international law is the most important measure to avoid conflicts and find solutions to conflicts. We endorse all efforts to resolve feuds through peaceful means in alignment with the UN’s principles and international law, including negotiation, mediation, and judicial”, the Deputy Prime Minister said. 

Ky Nam Nguyen is a student at Dickinson College pursuing Political Science, with a special interest in economics, social issues, education, and international relations. Currently, he’s taking a year out to do social work and research around his fields of interest.


Vietnam to bring up the Vanguard Bank incident at the United Nations General Assembly?

This is a translation for Oxford Omnia by Ky Nam Nguyen of an article on the Vietnamese news site, originally published in Vietnamese on 25th September 2019.

Why Ky Nam thinks this article is important; ‘Vietnam and China have been engaged in a tense territorial dispute since the latter sent a survey ship to the former’s Exclusive Economic Zone in the South China Sea in July. Vietnam’s statements at UNGA might gain the country leverage against its northern neighbour.

Vietnam Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Pham Binh Minh addressed the UNGA in 2016

A high-ranking Vietnamese official is expected to give a speech at the world leaders’ meeting UNGA. Analysts have raised that Ha Noi should put forward the confrontation between the country and China at Vanguard Bank,  claimed by both Vietnam and China, to mobilise support from the international community.

The office of the Spokesperson for Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has stated that, according to the current schedule, a Deputy Prime Minister of Vietnam will address the Assembly on 09/28. Vietnam’s foreign affairs ministry confirmed that Deputy Prime Minister Pham Binh Minh has flown to New York to join other world leaders. 

On 09/18 press conference, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang demanded that Vietnam “immediately end” unilateral oil inspecting activities at the Vanguard Bank. All the while, Hanoi has denounced Beijing multiple times for illegally escorting the Haiyang Dizhi 8, or Marine Geology 8, survey ship into Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone prescribed in the UNCLOS. 

“China has sovereignty over the Nansha Islands (Spratly Islands), hence sovereignty and jurisdiction rights regarding territorial waters of Wan’an Tan (Vanguard Bank), situated within the Nansha Islands”, Mr.Shuang stressed.

Commenting on the statement deemed “perverse” by many Vietnamese, Mr. Gregory Poling, Director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, suggests that Vietnam bring the dispute to its UNGA agenda. 

“In the long run, Vietnam’s only option, with the aim to fend off China’s territorial self-proclamation, is to garner global backing so that Beijing feels the sense of diminishing diplomatic reputation. Heretofore, other than the US, Hanoi has yet to secure any countries’ standpoint in the issue”, Mr.Poling said. 

“A speech at the United Nations General Assembly will draw the attention of influential countries such as Australia, Japan, Britain and encourage opinions of usually reticent ones.” 

Last year at the UNGA, when tensions regarding the South China Sea were less simmering, Vietnam Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc mentioned the topic of territorial waters disputes, with the assertion that Vietnam “always steadfastly holds in high regards the Charter of the United Nations, basic principles of international law in resolving oversea conflicts with peaceful measures, among which are disputes in the East Vietnam Sea (South China Sea), on the basis of the 1982 UNCLOS and the guaranteeing of maritime and aviation security and freedom.”

One year before that, Deputy Prime Minister Pham Binh Minh also stressed similar remarks at the United Nations, calling upon “all involved parties to restrain themselves.”

Mr. Poling reasons that mentioning the Vanguard Bank incident will, for certain, set off China’s ire, but it will also spawn negative response against Beijing from similar-standpoint countries in Europe, the USA, Canada, or Japan. Moreover, it will open the door for these countries, especially the US, to seek more international-stage approval on behalf of Vietnam.”

President Donald Trump, on 09/24, used his UNGA speech to send a firm message to China about the US-China trade war and caution that the world is watching how Beijing handles the situation in Hong Kong. China’s minister of foreign affairs Wang Yi retorted that Beijing would not kowtow to any threats.   

Pertaining to the upcoming speech from Vietnam, asked if Hanoi stands much chance of gathering approval at the UNGA on the Vanguard Bank incident, Mr.Poling said that “there are more countries who oppose China’s territorial claims than those who don’t”.

In 2016, more than 50 countries congratulated Philippines’ “win” when it filed a lawsuit against China’s territorial claim of almost the entirety of the South China Sea at the UNCLOS’s Permanent Court of Arbitration, whereas just over 30 states, mostly in the Middle East and Africa, stood along Beijing’s side to object to the court ruling. A host of scholars and activists in Vietnam have pushed Hanoi to follow in Manila’s footsteps to sue China.

“The Vanguard Bank incident will undoubtedly encounter reluctance due to China’s pressure on small states in Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, and some Asian countries, but more will be on Vietnam’s side than on China’s, and the former ones have much more in influence,” said Mr.Poling.

Ky Nam Nguyen is a student at Dickinson College pursuing Political Science, with a special interest in economics, social issues, education, and international relations. Currently, he’s taking a year out to do social work and research around his fields of interest.


Evaluating Universal Basic Income

Evaluating Universal Basic Income

By Sara Dube

The concept of universal basic income has policymakers and influencers around the world hotly divided. Those in favour frequently have a clear argument centred on the claim that there is less need for traditional nine-to-five jobs due to the impact of automation on society, opening up time for people to pursue creative or entrepreneurial interests while being paid a certain amount of money by the government to cover their basic needs. Not only does the scheme reduce poverty by providing a minimum level of income to everyone, it also has the potential to increase levels of happiness and well-being in society as there is more time and flexibility to explore one’s genuine interests, potentially increasing economic productivity.

Those against the implementation of a basic income often deliver a polar opposite argument painting the idea as overly idealistic and impractical. They respond to the claim of poverty alleviation by emphasising the negative effect on taxpayers and on the government: not only does it place an immense burden on these stakeholders to pay for the basic income, it also draws money away from projects that are specifically targeted to increase the welfare of citizens, such as medical care, education or health insurance. There is no guarantee that everyone granted a basic income would spend it on such services, creating the potential for a downward spiral into lower productivity and poorer health if the money is used on substances such as alcohol or drugs. The claim that people will explore their entrepreneurship, and thus contribute to increased economic productivity, is dismissed as too unrealistic: again, not everyone may choose to invest their newfound free time in productive pursuits and many may choose to stop contributing to the economy and the rest of society altogether, devaluing community life for the promotion of more individualistic projects.

While the issue may seem like a relatively black-and-white one, it is crucial to consider the nuances that surround it – such as, for instance, the specific impact on women of the implementation of a universal basic income. A universal basic income would offer women who stay at home to raise children a minimum level of economic security, freeing them from dependence on their partners to earn a living wage and granting them economic security and independence. Instead of being perceived as ‘free money,’ a feminist point of view regards basic income in the context of it being paid to stay-at-home women as a reward for the unpaid work they do at home that, in the long run, contributes to society and to the economy by ensuring the upbringing of their children and the running of a household. It creates the perception of this work and this care for others as something with value and as something that deserves pay, as opposed to a wage-less, and thus value-less, job in a society that places so much importance on money. The implementation of a basic income would particularly benefit the situation of women stuck in unhealthy relationships where they are dependent on their partners to pay for their basic needs, thus removing a huge barrier that, in many cases, prevents women from leaving abusive relationships.

On the other hand, there are those that argue that a basic income would in fact act to the detriment of a woman’s position in society, encouraging more women to stay at home and widening the gender pay gap as women with lower qualifications would have less incentive to acquire the increased training and skills to find work on the job market. A particularly unique and in-depth perspective considers the impact specifically on migrant women, who are predicted to seemingly suffer the most under the implementation of a universal basic income scheme, as they will have less of an incentive than ever to find work, lowering the rate of their language acquisition, social mobility, and thus integration into the host society.

These perspectives indicate that a crucial factor in determining the success of a basic income scheme is the manner in which the society in which it is implemented will respond to the policy: in a society that has already achieved a high level of gender equality, the scheme would empower women in allowing them to use the money to more efficiently balance household with professional work. In a more patriarchal society, it could lead to further stifling of a woman’s potential in encouraging her more than ever to stay at home, as there might be less of an incentive to find work.

The best way to determine how a society will respond to the implementation of such a system is, quite simply, to conduct a trial, as was done in Finland. This project, in which 2,000 randomly selected unemployed Finns received 560 euros per month for a year, was ended after two years in order to explore alternative welfare schemes , despite reports of greater flexibility and less bureaucracy. Critics commented that the trial was far too narrow and took place over too short a time period.

This is not to say that a universal basic income would not work in any country – some see this policy as a tool for development, to be implemented in developing nations as opposed to developed ones such as Finland.  If it were to be provided in developing countries, it would have the potential to cover the basic needs of their citizens, leading to better nutrition and health with the population, if the income is used wisely. Eventually the beneficiaries of the program may rise above poverty to contribute to the program instead of being on the receiving end of it. This vision is, admittedly, an idealistic one that depends heavily on global cooperation in providing developing countries with the resources to be able to implement such a policy and in raising awareness amongst the general population on how to most effectively utilise the basic income.

Universal basic income is an idea that certainly has the potential to change the world, but its implementation is extremely nuanced and depends on several socioeconomic factors that must be taken into account before pronouncing a final judgement on its value.


Sara is an undergraduate reading Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) at the University of Oxford. She is very interested in human rights and plans to pursue a career of law.