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.’
– Marcel Ophüls, documentary filmmaker
These are strong words, particularly from such a master of the genre. Like Ophüls, film critics often have reservations regarding documentaries. As historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr, remarked: ‘The line between the documentary and the fiction film is tenuous indeed. Both are artefacts: both are contrivances. Both are created by editing and selection. Both, wittingly or not, embody viewpoint.’ A second concern is the tendency of films to lull the critical powers of viewers. Nevertheless, it is apparent that documentaries have clear potential benefits – to inform, move, inspire, promote positive social change, strengthen group identities and provide glimpses of the world beyond our knowledge. Presumably, it was a belief in such benefits that inspired Ophüls to continue making documentaries, despite his professional mistrust of the form.
The story of the documentary began 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 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 so-called ‘actuality’ film (meaning that it was made prior to Grierson’s coinage), the first example of what was later to be dubbed docu-fiction, was directed by the American pioneer Robert Flaherty. While this was the first use of ‘documentary’ in connection with film, the form can be traced back to the very birth of cinema.
In the adventurous early days of documentary-making, during the 1930s, Ceylon inspired one of the finest ‘factual’ films ever made, an experimental work that featured extraordinary modernist visual and sound collages, the Song of Ceylon from 1934 (see Himal January 2010, ‘A magically depicted reality’). This was not the first documentary concerning the island, however, having been preceded by Charles Urban’s A Ramble through Ceylon (1910) and Curious Scenes in India (1912). One can also view James FitzPatrick’s travelogues Charming Ceylon (1931) and Tropical Ceylon (1932) – although they are nowhere near the quality of Song of Ceylon – on YouTube, but both of them have condescending, sometimes racist narrations.
Meanwhile, Ceylon’s indigenous documentary-film industry began at Independence in 1948, when equipment from disbanded World War II British military film units was given to the Colombo government, including two reputed Mitchell 35mm cameras. Consequently, the Government Film Unit (GFU) was established, vested with the responsibility to produce documentaries on development, social and artistic issues. This coincided with the inception of the similar Films Division in India. Such documentaries were not only viewed in cinemas prior to the main feature, but also screened impromptu in villages, out of vans equipped with projectors and screens.
At the inception of the GFU, in 1948, the country was seeking a post-Independence identity. But the lack of Ceylonese technical personnel necessitated the recruitment of outsiders – in the first instance, two Italians, Giulio Petroni (director) and Federico Serra (sound). One of their initial productions, The First Year Anniversary Celebrations of Independence (1949), reveals the lingering British presence in what was then the Dominion of Ceylon. This is symbolised by the chief guest, Governor-General Henry Monck-Mason Moore, the playing of the British national anthem, fly-pasts by World War Two-vintage Lancaster bombers and Sunderland ‘flying boats’, and parades by Royal Air Force and Royal Marines personnel.
The first GFU documentary of significance was The Capital Hill (1951), directed by Petroni. Focusing on the cultural aspect of the hill capital Kandy, it captures Kandyan dancing (at a time when such dances were of higher aesthetic standard than today), and the Kandy Esala Perahera, the elephant-dominated procession of dancers, drummers, acrobats and whip-crackers, again when it was far more traditional. Six months after Petroni’s departure, the Film Producers’ Guild, a leading documentary-production company in London, sent one of its directors to Ceylon with the aim of getting the government interested in making films jointly. The person concerned was India-born Ralph Keene, a leading light of the second wave of British documentary-makers, who directed The New Britain (1940), scripted by Graham Greene, and Cyprus Is an Island (1946), scripted by Laurie Lee. Soon, Keene was under contract to make two documentaries a year.
Keene had travelled to Ceylon before, to make String of Beads (1947) for the Ceylon Tea Propaganda Board. His first GFU film, which he wrote rather than directed, was Fishermen of Negombo (1952), directed by George Wickremasinghe, the pioneer of Ceylonese documentary-making. The footage is of significance, as the fishermen’s way of life as portrayed in the film has long disappeared. One of the outstanding aspects of this film is the score, rich with the rhythm and the melodies of Sinhalese folk music, by the country’s iconic traditional musician of the time, Deva Surya Sena. Wickremasinghe subsequently became head of the GFU, ushering in an era in which new Ceylonese directors could come into the limelight. Yet by the mid-1960s, the GFU had reached a state of creative stagnation, partly due to the uninspiring films commissioned such as Ceylon Toys (1961), Ceylon Asbestos (1963), and Poultry (1966). Indeed, the GFU lost much of its former glory during the 1970s, when the ‘pure’ form of documentary, epitomised by Song of Ceylon, had come to an end and a new age of ‘non-fiction’ film had dawned. A decade later, the advent of television in Sri Lanka was inevitably deleterious.
|New newsreels : ´The First Year Anniversary Celebrations of Democracy´ (1949), cinematography by Guilio Petroni & Federico Serra|
In 1984, this writer was requested to compile archive footage on Sri Lanka for a tourist promotion project, and was granted permission to copy any of the scores of GFU documentaries and newsreels that had been produced over the previous 36 years. Some of these predominantly black-and-white films, especially those from the late 1940s and 1950s, highlighted the enormous artistic, cultural and social heritage the GFU had captured on celluloid. At the same time, it quickly became clear that attempts to preserve the negatives were almost non-existent. Most of the GFU personnel – of a different generation from the early pioneers, and now using video – seemed unconcerned about the documentary legacy. Walking through the intolerably hot film library (nothing more than a shed), one could almost hear the dangerous chemical reactions occurring inside rusting film cans, where decades-old negatives stewed in their own juices.
Fortunately, starting around that time, many film historians and filmmakers, especially Sri Lanka’s internationally acclaimed director, Lester James Peries, who began his career at the GFU, began to plead for an urgent project to restore and preserve the country’s documentary record. Frustratingly, the urgency was not understood by the succession of government bureaucrats who had to make the ultimate decision. A quarter of a century thus elapsed without action, before Sharadha de Saram, a former news producer at the Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation (the premier state television station), casually mentioned the idea of digitising the films to an assistant cultural-affairs officer of the US Embassy.
The suggestion was met with enthusiasm and a project was implemented in 2008, including a modest USD 20,000 gift from the US government. De Saram, appointed project director, was fortunate to enjoy the consultancy services of Tissa Abeysekara, an accomplished GFU filmmaker and historian. Eventually, 170 documentaries and newsreels were screened for assessment, with only 35mm material – other formats (for instance, 16mm material) being sidelined for a future project. To match the budgetary allocation, 100 films were selected, and a cleaning process began.
Sadly, Abeysekara died suddenly during the last stages of the project. On 12 May, a special screening to mark the end of the project showed three documentaries and a newsreel, but his absence dampened the occasion. Although a major festival to screen most or all the films would now be the ideal method to showcase this newly re-found documentary heritage, the films are being broadcast on television. Without contextualisation and evaluation, however, these mostly black and white films, some of poor visual quality and all displaying outdated production techniques, are likely to compel viewers to switch channels.
A catalogue of 70 of the films and newsreels was also published to coincide with the project’s completion. Due to the paucity of published material on Sri Lanka’s documentary tradition, this catalogue is of course welcome, containing comprehensive credits, detailed production notes and evocative stills from the films. But for the film historian, the introduction is frustratingly short on detail regarding the execution of the project. A special copy of the catalogue (which includes excerpts by this writer), to be given to the GFU, will form the master reference guide, and will contains notes on the condition of every film, indicating whether the negative or positive is available and recommending further conservation measures. As a result, funds have been requested to restore negatives, and proper storage space has been created with de-humidifiers and air-conditioning.
Meanwhile, the newsreels were produced every month. Ceylon News No 1 (1949), a collection of news features, for instance, turns out to be an eclectic gem. One item features the departure of sacred Buddha relics to Burma, at a time when General Aung San was prime minister; another depicts a tennis match held in Colombo between the US professionals Gussie Moran and Pat Todd. In 1949, the year it was filmed, Moran had been accused by the Wimbledon authorities of bringing ‘vulgarity and sin into tennis’ by wearing a short dress with lace-trimmed knickers, which had earned her the sobriquet ‘Gorgeous Gussie’.
Most of the newsreels were far more mundane. For instance, Ceylon News No 13 (1950) includes the opening of a cement factory in Kankesanthurai, the inauguration of the office of the minister of state, and the annual National Physique Contest. Ceylon News No 14 (1950), however, is of great relevance to film historians, as the main item concerns the making of Carol Reed’s Outcast of the Islands (1952), based on Joseph Conrad’s novel and starring the English actors Ralph Richardson and Trevor Howard. The newsreel includes an interview with Reed, in which he comments on the reasons for choosing Ceylon as a location, as it replicated the novel’s location, Makassar, perfectly.
For this writer, one film screened at the 12 May showing particularly sticks in the mind: Tissa Abeysekara’s classic Kamam, from the late 1970s. This documentary depicts the agricultural lives of the people of Jaffna – just years before ethnic tensions were to forever change the peninsula’s life and landscape – described through Tamil folk songs, which proved incredibly moving to hear again. Capturing beautiful landscapes that have become unfamiliar to the ‘southerners’, cut off from the north for so long; and featuring the traditional lives of the people of Jaffna, this is a film that requires to be screened widely, to assist in the reintegration of the peoples of Sri Lanka.
~ Richard Boyle is a contributing editor for Himal Southasian.