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.