Sri Lanka has inspired some notable 20th-century artistic masterpieces, from D H Lawrence’s poem “Elephant Is Slow To Mate” to Henri Cartier-Bresson’s portfolio of photographs. Then there is Basil Wright’s film Song of Ceylon, one of the finest documentaries ever produced. Made in 1934, it has been assessed by one Ceylonese critic as the film that has “best projected the image of the country, the soul of its people, and the endless beauty of the landscape with a subtle touch of magic for the world to see and admire.” Indeed, over the decades, it has probably done more to publicise the island than any other promotional film.
Song of Ceylon was one of many outstanding documentaries produced in the 1930s by the Empire Marketing Board Film Unit (later the British GPO Film Unit) as the result of the pioneering vision of one man, John Grierson. In 1929, Grierson directed the influential film Drifters, which was the first example of what came to be called the British Documentary Movement. In the studio-bound British cinema of the time, a film like Drifters, which drew its drama from real life, was revolutionary. Grierson’s simple story of the North Sea herring fishery brought what were then new and startling images to the screen.
Grierson was a brilliant theoretician as well as an accomplished filmmaker. It was he who first used the term documentary in relation to a film – in 1926, in a review of Robert Flaherty’s film Moana. “Of course, Moana, being a visual account of events in the daily life of a Polynesian youth and his family, has documentary value,” he wrote, later defining the word as “the creative treatment of actuality”. And it was he who developed the documentary movement “to bring alive to the citizen the world in which his citizenship lay, and to bridge the gap between the citizen and his community.” The “documentary idea”, he wrote, demands no more than that the affairs of our time be brought to the screen in any fashion which strikes the imagination and makes observation a little richer than it was. At one level, the vision may be journalistic; at another, it may rise to poetry and drama. At another level again, its aesthetic quality may lie in the mere lucidity of its exposition.
What we understand by the word documentary precedes Grierson’s coining of it, for cinema began with documentary material called ‘topicals’, in which the camera passively observed babies eating breakfast, trains arriving at stations and workers leaving factories. Audiences, however, soon grew bored with topicals. They demanded of the new medium what they demanded of the older media – the narrative form. Only when Flaherty began to structure his material so that it might satisfy the needs of audiences could Grierson identify a new type of film and call it documentary.
Song of Ceylon was one of many Grierson documentaries made with enlightened sponsorship from industry and government departments – in this instance, the Ceylon Tea Propaganda Board, which today goes by the name Sri Lanka Tea Board. Director-cameraman Basil Wright was chosen to direct the four one-reelers that had been commissioned by the board, while the poet W H Auden was chosen to write the script. Part of Wright’s distinction as a filmmaker was the conscientious manner in which he went about his work. Indeed, it was said of him that no director ever travelled to a location better prepared.
Before embarking for Ceylon, Wright researched diligently, reading every book he could find on the island. He even visited John Still, who had lived in Ceylon for many years and who was the author of Jungle Tide (1930), then one of the best accounts of the wild interior of the island. The 27-year-old Wright, an advocate of small film units, arrived in Colombo with just his assistant, John Taylor, on New Year’s Day 1934. He soon made the first of two important discoveries that were to have significant influence on the production. It was only natural that Wright was eager to find a Ceylonese to assist him on location, for the first impulse of nearly any filmmaker in a strange land is to find someone with the right local knowledge. G K Stewart, chairman of the Ceylon Tea Propaganda Board, suggested Lionel Wendt.
It was an inspired recommendation, as Wendt was at the time Ceylon’s finest still photographer, and knew his country intimately. Wendt was to play a vital part in the small film unit, and accompanied Wright and Taylor almost everywhere they went during the seven-week shoot. The unit travelled extensively, capturing some of the first documented moving images of the country. (Though the film archives of the US Library of Congress contain two much earlier films, A Ramble through Ceylon (1910) and Curious Scenes in India (1913).) Guided by Wendt, the unit climbed Sri Pada (Adam’s Peak), explored the hill country and ruined cities, and witnessed rural life in abundance. Wright filmed fishermen and farmers, Buddhist monks and coconut-pluckers, craftsmen and dancers.
Wright and Taylor returned to England in April 1934 with two well-known Kandyan dancers, Ukkuwa and Gunaya, who had taken part in the film. They were to assist with the post-production synchronisation, as no sound had been recorded on location. Later, Wendt joined them in London. While the composer Walter Leigh worked on the orchestral score, Wright began the editing. By the time he had completed a rough cut of the four one-reelers, he understood that together they made a complete documentary. For his part, Grierson invariably made a creative contribution to every film he produced, and Song of Ceylon was no exception. As Wright commented later: “You had to get used to doing without sleep and that sort of thing, but he was the most rewarding person to work with that I’ve ever met, because he was able to extract from you abilities which you didn’t know you had but which he sensed.”
Yet there was one point at which their relationship stuttered. On being shown the rough cut of the film, Grierson remarked to Wright: “Absolutely marvellous. Except that there’s something so terrible at the end that you have got to put right.” Grierson was referring to a scene in which a street vendor makes an offering of flowers at Gal Vihara, Polonnaruwa. Wright had juxtaposed this reflective scene with an energetic Kandyan dance, and Grierson felt they clashed. By this time, Wright had been working on the film for many months, and had evidently become too involved for he could not grasp Grierson’s point. Producer and director proceeded to have their only serious difference of opinion during years of creative collaboration – “a bang up and down row”, as Wright described it. Wright went home and drank. The next day he refused to go to the studio.
The following evening, Wright started to think about the film once again, and suddenly had an idea for an alternative ending. He drove to the studios after midnight and, as he recalled, “picked up a second take of the man reading that prayer on Sri Pada (which happens at the beginning of the film), chopped it up, and related these phrases to the shots of the men dressing for the dance, which I hadn’t used at all.” When Grierson arrived at the studios the next morning, Wright was still there. The last reel was duly screened for the producer, who commented when the lights came up: “There, what did I tell you? There’s absolute genius.” Wright said of the episode: “He was right, and I was right because I found out how to do it, because that scene is vitally important to the film.”
In the end, W H Auden never wrote the script, and this task was left to Wright. It was while editing that Wright made the second of his important discoveries, which likewise influenced the outcome of the film. Although he was familiar with many of the important books about the island, it is curious that he was unaware of Robert Knox’s An Historical Relation of Ceylon (1681). He stumbled on a copy in a bookshop near the British Museum, and realised it would provide an ideal commentary for the film. It is entirely apt that passages from the first and finest book in the English language on Ceylon should be used in the first and finest documentary film about the island.
Wright tried several voices for the narration, but none satisfied him. Just four days before Wendt was due to return to Ceylon, Wright asked him if he could test his voice. Wendt read Knox’s prose in his characteristic voice – described elsewhere as “dry, precise and faintly sepulchral” – and Wright felt it was perfect. Thereafter, Wendt recorded the narration for the final version of the film, reading it straight through in a single take.
The final 40-minute cut of Song of Ceylon premiered as a second feature at London’s Curzon Cinema in early 1935. The most eloquent review of the documentary was written by the author Graham Greene. “Song of Ceylon is an example to all directors of perfect construction and the perfect application of montage,” Greene wrote. “Perfection is not a word one cares to use, but from the opening sequence of the Ceylon forest this film moves with the air of absolute certainty in its object and assurance in its method.”
In the first part of the film, called “The Buddha´” the camera clings to a line of pilgrims ascending Sri Pada. At the summit, “as a priest strikes a bell, Mr Wright uses one of the loveliest visual metaphors I have ever seen on a screen,” continued Greene. “The sounding of the bell startles a bird from its branch and the camera follows the bird’s flight and the notes of the bell across the island, down the mountain side, over forest and plain and sea, the vibration of the tiny wings, the fading sound.” Movement dominates this sequence. Grierson wrote of Wright that he “is almost exclusively interested in movement and will build up movement in a fury of design and nuances of design; and for those whose eye is sufficiently trained and sufficiently fine, will convey emotion in a thousand variations on a simple theme.”
As Greene observed, the second part, “The Virgin Island”, “is transitional, leading us away from the religious theme by way of the ordinary routine of living to industry.” This section includes a breathtaking montage of activities relating to daily life. Wright’s subjects pursue their activities and exchange banter with an extraordinary degree of naturalness, no doubt due to Wendt’s presence on location. In the third part, “The Voice of Commerce”, Greene writes, the commentary, which has been ingeniously drawn from a seventeenth-century traveller’s account of the island, gives way to scraps of business talk. As the natives follow the old ways of farming, climbing the palm or guiding their elephants’ foreheads against the trees they have to fell, voices dictate the bills of lading, close deals over the telephone, announce through loud-speakers the latest market prices.
Good as it is, Greene’s description does not quite convey the experimental nature of this part of the documentary. The GPO Film Unit had recently acquired its own sound equipment, and Grierson grasped the opportunity to demonstrate his belief that the soundtrack need not simply provide the obvious accompaniment in narration and music, but could make a contribution on its own. Grierson wrote of the “sound imagery” he discovered, which is used to such good effect in Song of Ceylon: A curious fact emerges – your aeroplane noise may become not the image of an aeroplane but the image of distance or height. I cannot tell how far this imagery will go because we are only beginning to become dramatically and poetically conscious of sounds. The whole power of sound imagery will come as more and more sounds are detached and matured into special significance, which I believe is latent in them. This is not silent film with sound added. It is an art – the art of sound film.
It was once said of Grierson and his team at the GPO Film Unit that they were “not paid to tell the truth but to make people use the parcel post.” Unfortunately the lyrical beauty of Song of Ceylon sometimes does, in fact, obscure its social dimension. Yet, as Paul Rotha argued in Documentary Diary (1973), the film “carried implicit but nevertheless significant comment on the low industrial status of native labour in that Island.”
Of the last part of the film, “The Apparel of a God”, Graham Greene wrote that it “returns by way of the gaudy images of the mountain, to a solitary man laying his offering at Buddha’s feet, and closes again with the huge revolving leaves, so that all we have seen of devotion and dance, the bird’s flight and the gentle communal life of harvest, seems sealed away from us between the fans of foliage. We are left outside with the bills of lading and the loud-speakers.”
Song of Ceylon received the first prize at the 1935 Brussels International Film Festival – mainly for its imaginative use of sound, which was far in advance of contemporary achievement. Despite its critical acclaim, Song of Ceylon was not always popular with audiences. As Roger Manvell stated in his book Film (1944), “Its elaboration, its marriage of sight and sound in such a way as to produce in a sensitive audience perspectives of meaning not ostensibly present in either image or sound-track alone, its length, its occasional under-exposed photography, did not always lead to a sympathetic reception. In other words it suffered from the courageous overlay of genius.”
Wright recognised the worth of Song of Ceylon. “That’s the only film of mine that I can sit through today without blushing or wanting to run out,” he said. The director added a tribute to Wendt, who had died in 1944. “Without him I don’t think Song of Ceylon would have been what it is. For here was a man who knew Ceylon as few men did, and he was in touch with the avant-garde cinema of those days and he knew what the documentary people were doing.” Wendt’s working relationship with Wright had not come to an end with Song of Ceylon. Planning to start a film unit in Ceylon, Wendt returned to England to gain experience as an assistant director at Wright’s production company, which had been set up in 1937. In the end, however, he worked on only two productions. “The climate was getting him down,” Wright recalled, “and I could see that he was always longing to get back to Ceylon.”
Although Wright became an administrator, he did direct several other remarkable documentaries in other parts of the world. In 1965, he was invited to return to Ceylon to help rescue the Government Film Unit (GFU), which had been set up at independence in 1948 with equipment left behind by the British armed forces. As there was a dearth of local filmmakers, foreign directors and technicians were employed in the early years. These were short-term contracts, however, so that by the early 1950s the GFU was staffed entirely by Ceylonese. During the next decade these directors made some notable films, such as George Wickremasinghe’s Fishermen of Negombo (1952) and Order of the Yellow Robe (1953), Pragnasoma Hettiarachchi’s Art and Architecture of Ceylon (1956), Makers, Motifs and Materials (1958) – winner of the gold medal at the Venice Film Festival, 1959 – Rhythms of the People (1961), In the Steps of the Buddha (1962) and Irwin Dassanaike’s The Living Wild (1959).
By the mid-1960s, though, the GFU had reached a state of creative stagnation. Although Wright expressed his willingness to help out, he unfortunately never made another journey to the island. As so often happens, bureaucratic indifference resulted in a consummate opportunity being squandered and Wright stayed away. Certainly the GFU never regained its former glory. Furthermore, until recently, lack of archival and preservation facilities meant that the negatives of GFU films were disintegrating, and significant social documents of the past in danger of being lost. Fortunately, an American-funded project has now digitised many of the films, and a GFU documentary festival is planned.