Photo: 'Song of Ceylon' (travelfilmarchive/ Youtube)
Photo: 'Song of Ceylon' (travelfilmarchive/ Youtube)

A magically depicted reality

'Song of Ceylon' is possibly the finest account of the island and a film which helped define the evolving documentary form.

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.

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