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Sri Lankan film ban halts French festival, sparks anger


Text by Leela JACINTO

Latest update : 2013-07-16

The Sri Lankan government’s decision to ban the acclaimed film, “Flying Fish” and halt the French film festival, where it was screened has sparked outrage in a country that’s no stranger to threats to free speech.

A couple walks precariously on a railway track as it ploughs through the lush green fields of northeastern Sri Lanka. It’s an old childhood stunt in these parts - trying to walk as far as possible on winding railway tracks without losing balance.

But this couple has developed an ingenious way to stay on track. As the camera zooms out, the audience can see they’re cheating. The couple – a young village girl and a soldier - keep steady by clutching the two ends of a rifle across the track.

As they make their wobbly way, a voice on the audio track, intones in Tamil, “What I am going to tell you is a story that is not in any textbook. It is our story. Nobody likes to put it in a book.”

Nobody, it seems, in the Sri Lankan government – likes to see this story on screen. What’s more, nobody in Sri Lanka is likely to see it either.

The scene from “Flying Fish” - an award-winning feature film directed by Sri Lankan filmmaker Sanjeewa Pushpakumara - is from one of three narratives that link the civil war-era film.

Over the weekend, the Sri Lankan government suspended the 2013 French Film Festival in the capital of Colombo after the two-hour film was screened before a selected, invited audience.

'Flying Fish' trailer

The festival was scheduled to run between June 18 and July 14. But a day before Sunday’s grand finale, Sri Lankan authorities halted the festival.

On Monday, the government announced that the film has been banned across the country and legal action would be taken against those involved in the making of “Flying Fish” – or ‘Igilena Maaluwo’ as it’s called in the original Sinhala language.

Speaking to reporters in Colombo, Defence Ministry official Lakshman Hulugalla called it “an illegal film which insults the security forces and the government of Sri Lanka”.

Hulugalla also added that the film uses images of the Sri Lankan military uniform without permission from the Defence Ministry, a powerful ministry headed by Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, the brother of Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Reacting to the news of the ban, Athula Withanage, a Sri Lankan journalist living in exile in France, responded with despair – and some resignation.

“I don’t think the film is critical [of the government]. It’s just a normal story set against the backdrop of the war. The Sri Lankan government has a phobia. They think the international community, NGOs and the diaspora is against them. I don’t think the government officials even saw the film, but they went ahead and halted the whole film festival.”

The ban on “Flying Fish” comes amid a fierce clampdown on free speech in the South Asian island nation that has seen journalists, activists, lawyers and even top judges detained under security laws, which human rights groups have called “draconian” and “arcane”.

‘A sustained campaign’ to ‘curtail dissent’

In an excoriating summary of Sri Lanka’s human rights abuses, the New York-based Human Rights Watch noted that, “Four years after Sri Lanka’s horrific civil war ended, many Sri Lankans await justice for the victims of abuses, news of the ‘disappeared,’ and respect for their basic rights”.

In 2009, Sri Lankan forces defeated the Tamil separatist LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) rebels after a brutal 26-year civil war which left at least 100,000 people dead. The final military assault against the Tamil Tigers – as they are commonly known – is a subject of intense debate and rancor between the Sri Lankan government, the country’s minority Tamil ethnic group, and the international community.

A UN investigation put the death toll during the final months of the military assault at 40,000, but the Sri Lankan government has rejected the figure and denies allegations of war crimes.

While the end of the civil war has sparked economic growth – especially in the tourism sector – clampdowns on the media continue with the authorities shutting down at least five news websites critical of the government in 2012.

Last month, the government officially proposed a media code that would prohibit the publication of any content deemed to offend the “expectations of the public” and the “morality of the country”.

Human rights groups have warned that media code is “part of a sustained campaign to control the media and curtail dissent”.

‘Regimented jackboots’ crushing ‘artistic expression’

The news of the latest film ban made headlines across Sri Lanka, with the official state media slamming director Sanjeewa Pushpakumara for dishonoring the country’s much-venerated military.

In a statement issued from South Korea, where he is based, Pushpakumara denied discrediting the military and noted that he sought to depict reality "in a humane and artistic way".

Pushpakumara also denied state media reports that he had links with the LTTE.
Born in 1977 in the northeastern city of Trincomalee, Pushpakumara belongs to the majority Sinhalese Buddhist community, which makes state media allegations of his ties to the Tamil Tigers particularly disingenuous.

In interviews to the press in recent years, Pushpakumara has repeatedly noted that his acclaimed first film draws on the stories and characters he encountered while growing up during the civil war.

Reacting to the suspension of the French Film Festival, the French Embassy in Sri Lanka said the film was chosen “due to its international recognition in festivals in Asia and in France”.

In a statement posted on its website, the French Embassy noted that it received screening authorisation from the Sri Lankan Public Performances Board and all the screening conditions stipulated by the authorities were met.

Nevertheless, the statement went on to regret the “unfortunate incident” and the embarrassment it may have caused the public and the festival sponsors. “The aim of the French Spring Cultural Festival is to strengthen the friendly relations between France and Sri Lanka and in no way to harm any part of the Sri Lankan diverse society,” [sic] the statement noted.

But in their reactions to the ban, Sri Lankan artists and activists were not as measured as the festival organisers. On Sunday, more than 50 activists signed a statement deploring what they called the state media’s intimidation and vilification of prominent Sri Lankan writer Gamini Viyangoda in connection with the “Flying Fish” ban.

The Colombo-based Free Media Movement released a statement saying the ban demonstrated the government's desire to "even militarise arts and culture" and in an interview with the daily, Ceylon Today, respected Sri Lankan filmmaker Dharmasiri Bandaranayake noted that the latest move by the government proved that "regimented jackboots" were "crush[ing] artistic expression".

More than two years ago, when “Flying Fish” was a nominee in the main competition at the 2011 Rotterdam Film Festival, Pushpakumara noted that the international reception to the film had provided encouragement to filmmakers back home. “It’s good for me and it’s good for Sri Lankan cinema,” said the young director. It remains to be seen whether the domestic response to his film will have the reverse effect on future Sri Lankan filmmakers.


Date created : 2013-07-16


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