Filmmakers are neither demagogues nor ivory towers. Well, some of them like to pander to appeal and others love to confuse the audience and this in a way which deters mass appeal. But not always. In Sri Lanka and pretty much everywhere else in Asia, this is as true as it’s going to get.
As such it’s only natural that most of those who enter the cinema begin their careers as ivory towers. Only later do they realise that for all what they’re spouting, the need to establish a link with the audience must be privileged. As such those who try to avoid both paths and move away from the beaten track are to be applauded. They are rare.
Keats was 25 when he died. He wrote up some of the most over-quoted lines in English poetry, limited though their outlook and experience were. But he offered a lesson. Age, no matter how congruent it may be with wisdom, is never a setback for budding artists. Including filmmakers, one may add.
Rehan Mudannayake, who prefers to be neither a demagogue nor an ivory tower in what he’s doing, would agree. He has directed several fictional shorts, a documentary, and a video installation thus far, and in all he’s tried to achieve a middle path. Whether he’s really done it is another story altogether. For now, what’s important is this: he has tried.
Style, Sidney Lumet once wrote, is the most misunderstood word since love. True. Filmmakers all too often are moved by technique and polish, words which themselves are glossed over to market intellectual appeal to audiences. That doesn’t work all the time, of course, which probably differentiates the master from the amateur. Perhaps this is what Rehan echoes when he puts it: “Cinema is not for a minority.”
He was educated at Elizabeth Moir in Colombo and later at Worth Abbey School in England. In both schools, he had derived a love for art and cinema that would, for the better part of his life till now, stay. Predictably, it stayed with him even when he entered the University of Kent, to study film for three years, and the University of Amsterdam, to study not just film, but literature, drama, and musicology. “Jazz,” he interjects with a smile, “was an area I had to study and love. I did both.”
He studied abroad, yes, but he never really felt the need to keep what he had learnt there. So he returned to Sri Lanka in 2012. When asked as to why he did so, he replies, “Purely and simply, the desire to make movies in my own country.” He qualifies this: “Besides, I grew up on a diet of films here. So this is where I really began my career.”
And here he admits regret: “England doesn’t have a vibrant film culture anymore.” As reason for lament, he points out that while the likes of Ken Loach breathed new life into the British cinema, there’s hardly anyone to take up their legacy and continue it. “In other words, there’s hardly any continuity in the cinema there, quite opposite to what’s happening across the Atlantic.” What’s missing, he adds, is state support.
“I remember David Cameron once publicly stating that all directors in the UK must strive to make more films like Harry Potter. He was probably offering justification for his government’s decision to abolish the UK Film Council. That’s absurd though, and quite harrowingly so. Forget the fact that not everyone can make or afford to make a Harry Potter. Where’s the youth going to be in the British film industry? I think not addressing this question, especially in the long term, will do more damage than anyone can imagine.”
For his part, Rehan has stuck to principle. He is also eclectic. That is how he can talk about his fascination with Eisenstein and the Russians, Godard and the French, and Spielberg and the Americans. “Point is, we can’t really inflate ourselves and think that what we love as film-styles are the best. We need to learn as many of them as we can,” he says, “Which brings me to my second point: if cinema is NOT to remain as a minority art, we need to go beyond a crowd mentality.”
As an example, he points at Wes Anderson. “I believe he has conformed the least among American directors today. You can’t really talk about the American film scene without factoring in its studio system. Anderson has kept away from all that. That is why, when you see films like Moonrise Kingdom, you tend to think, ‘Ah, this must have been done by some recluse!’ In a way, that’s true, because the man has really become an outsider to his country’s studio-oriented film culture. He is to be applauded for this, no doubt.”
At the same time though, Rehan cautions against making this an excuse for intellectualising the cinema. “The cinema is never static. It’s always trying to question and liberate itself. It’s always on the go. In large part, this has to do with the fact that it’s the youngest of the arts. So I guess it’s natural that we haven’t really unearthed half of the potential which films are capable of reaching. As a summing up, he lays out one point: “The world needs its Andersons. But without the Spielbergs and Lucases, it would be quite dull.”
Coming back to Sri Lanka, Rehan admits that ours is a film culture which encourages free inquiry. The problem however is that various institutions have impeded on a truly national film industry, which explains how the likes of Prasanna Vithanage can emerge and at the same time be opposed by what Lionel Wendt once caustically referred to as the “Decency Brigade.” Parochialism, in whatever form and context, does little for the cinema. Even with all this, Rehan agrees with one point. “We still persevere. In a very big way, that explains why we’ve progressed after all this time.”
His own work is minimal in comparison, but it bears out his views. One of his first attempts was a short called Insecxtual, made a couple of years back and nominated for the top prize at the Mosaic Film Festival in Toronto. His most recent work, Elephant (an adaptation of an Ashok Ferrey short story), is not really a follow-up in that it encounters and explores new themes. Rehan elaborates.
“Elephant is a harrowing drama about the Colombo elite in Sri Lanka. It deals with the challenges of living in a bubble where it is near-impossible to lead one’s life without others prying into it. It follows an upper class family in the city, negatively affected by the scrutiny surrounding a dark secret of theirs. I’m so excited to preview it at the Goethe Institute this December.”
Time is short and Rehan tries his best to meditate on all what he’s put across so far. He offers a final point to sum them: “We need to stop the cinema from being institutionalised. For this, we must seek cooperation from critics who know what they’re writing about and audiences who appreciate films for what they are. My proposal, which might be seen as radical by some, would be to encourage filmmakers to go for crowd-funding. We need truly independent directors and this is one way of breeding them. But will we ever get them? That is my question to you.”