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Sci-fi action with deeper themes of racism and prejudice

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Screamfest Best Short Film – ‘Vikaari’

By Sajitha Prematunge

The Sri Lankan produced short film ‘Vikaari’ won the Best Short Film award at the 20th annual Screamfest Horror Film Festival held in Hollywood, California, from October 6 to 15. WatchWorthy went behind the scenes of ‘Vikaari’ with Co-Writer, Producer and Director Sandun Seneviratne.

Known as the Sundance of horror, Screamfest is the largest and longest running horror film festival in the United States. Considered one of the best genre festivals in the world, it entertains horror, sci-fi and thriller films and screenplays. Cult classics such as ‘The Grudge’ and ‘Paranormal Activity’ premiered at Screamfest. This year’s Screamfest was a drive-in affair, showcasing the works of 91 independent filmmakers in the course of its 10-day series, including 83 short film directors, 67 short film producers, 11 feature film directors, and 13 feature film producers. Top movies, filmmakers, actors and screenplays for the year 2020 were awarded during the festival’s closing night on Thursday, October 15.

‘Vikaari’ was the first ever Sri Lankan produced movie accepted for screening at the festival and the award was a pleasant bonus for Co-Writer, Producer and Director Sandun Seneviratne. It clinched the Best Short Film award, beating 62 other, mostly US and European short films. Sandun Seneviratne explained that although there are many festivals in the circuit, it’s difficult to get selected for screening at a top-rated festival, let alone win an award. “I consider it not just a personal achievement, but one for the country,” said Seneviratne. ‘Vikaari’ has been selected for screening at the Lund International Fantastic Film Festival, in Sweden, at the end of the month.

The story of ‘Vikaari’ was conceived some 20 years ago. “In fact it was my first script,” said Seneviratne. The screenplay was co-written with Charlie Bray, his classmate from London Film Academy, adapted to the current context. The duo attended London Film Academy from 2006 to 2009.

Seneviratne describes ‘Vikaari’ as not ‘horror’ per se, but a sci-fi action-drama. He admitted that sci-fi is his forte and most of his previous projects are also of the sci-fi action drama genre. He was exposed to science fiction at an early age, when he was introduced to the works of Sir Arthur C. Clarke in his father’s library. Other than Clarke, Seneviratne was inspired by Isaac Asimov and Frank Herbert, whose ‘Dune’, the movie adaptation of which will be out soon, made quite an impression on Seneviratne.

Hollywood mutant movie franchises no doubt influenced the film’s makers to favour the title ‘Vikaari’, derived from the Sanskrit meaning of the word: ‘change’ or ‘an entity that can change. The film revolves around the births of a new generation of children with a similar set of disabilities, bordering on the supernatural, in countries devastated by war. Although the phenomenon sparks worldwide panic, ‘Vikaari’ focuses on the political and cultural turmoil brought on by the advent of the Vikaari in Sri Lanka, pushing the nation towards the brink of another violent conflict, just after the end of a three-decade long war. Some want to eliminate the ‘Vikaari’ while others have ulterior motives for wanting to keep them.

True to the genre, the kaleidoscope of visuals imbues the ‘Vikaari’ trailer with a ‘Blair Witch Project’-kind of eeriness. The soundtrack, reminiscent of the menacing ping in ‘Life’ and one that precedes the calm before all hell breaks lose in ‘Annihilation’, firmly establishes it in the sci-fi genre, while Robert Dee Richards’ very convincing Prof. David Hameroff provides it a documentary-style credibility. However, ‘Vikaari’ is not mere science fantasy. It deals with more socially relevant subject matter and deeper underlying themes such as racism and the cost of prejudice.

Most of ‘Vikaari’ was shot in Sri Lanka, while some sequences were shot in the UK. Written and directed by Seneviratne and Charlie Bray the film and stars Ashan Dias, Bimsara Premaratne and British actor Robert Dee Richards in leading roles along with a host of other Sri Lankan actors. Most of the movie is in English with some of the Sinhala dialogue accompanied by English subtitles.

Seneviratne has been making short films for nearly two decades and has a bank of stories he hopes to make into movies. His big breakthrough was Sri Lanka’s first big budget sci-fi web series ‘Seer: Death sight’. The 2007 short film revolved around a psychic hit man, in an apocalyptic future, who was trained to treat everything between him and his target as collateral. But his life is turned topsy-turvy when he meets a little girl. Seer: Death sight, in short film form was screened at many prestigious genre film festivals including The Phoenix Comic Con film festival, Intl Sci-FI and Fantasy Film Festival of Athens and Fantastic Planet: Sydney.

“The language of film-making is very easy, you shoot, get a few close-ups and piece them together and you have a movie. What’s difficult is making a good film,” said Seneviratne, which, according to him, took him a lifetime of study, experience and experimentation. Seneviratne hopes to locally produce Hollywood-inspired feature films that can compete in the international market in terms of production value and storytelling. “But it’s difficult to find resources for and finance them in Sri Lanka,” said Seneviratne, when asked why he has not yet made a feature-length film.

He finances his own films and many in the ‘Vikaari’ team was very understanding and supportive. The Vikaari child actors Nethuli Adihetti, Nithila Goonetilleke and Thinuga Adihetti also gave the audiences a run for their money. “Of course you can’t live off film-making in Sri Lanka,” said Seneviratne who runs his own business. He is the Director of Louvre International School in Nugegoda and Pannipitiya. “It’s difficult to maintain a large film industry in Sri Lanka, considering the small population, but the local film industry is doing the best it can, specially in the art house genre, although we’re lagging behind on commercial movies of international calibre.” Seneviratne hopes that upcoming young local film-makers can change that.

When asked what obstacles there are for a Sri Lankan to break into the international film industry, Seneviratne said, “It just never been done before.” But he explained that with platforms such as YouTube and internet usage being amongst the highest in the region, reaching audiences has ceased to be a challenge. Not to mention that such social media platforms take bureaucratic red tape, of getting a full-length movie approved, out of the equation. “Technology is improving and movie-making is becoming cheaper by the day. You can make a movie on your phone, which I did during the lockdown.” He pointed out that even visual effects are getting cheaper. But are they on par with that of Hollywood? “Yes, they are getting there.” in fact some of the visual effects for ‘Vikaari’ were done by a Sri Lankan company called ApexDfx.

However, will Sri Lankan artists, who’ve been heavily influenced by Indian cinema and soap opera, notorious for over-acting, hype and melodrama, be disciplined enough to pull off a Hollywood-level movie? “There’s nothing wrong with being influenced by different film cultures. It’s what you want to do that matters.” However, he explained that the art house film culture in Sri Lanka is very much influenced by Russian cinema. “Tarkovsky type of very abstract art house film-making, in particular,” pointed out Seneviratne.

“Besides, it’s not really a matter of discipline. It’s a matter of talent.” Seneviratne explained that such an acting style is encouraged in the way that Sri Lankan artistes are trained. “Our way of acting is different to that of Hollywood. It’s just a matter of bridging the two styles. It’s not like our actors are not talented and as long as you’re working with talented people, you can talk to them and mould them into what you want.”

But would Sri Lankan audiences, whose taste have been shaped by such influences accept such movies made by Sri Lankans, when there is already a proliferation of Hollywood originals in the market? He said that although he hopes that the movie would have a global reach, he also hopes that it will be embraced by Sri Lankan audiences. His idea of film is truly international, employing both eastern and western characters, set mainly in the Asian region. “People watched films like ‘Black Panther’ and ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ irrespective of location they were set in and who was acting. As long as it’s a good entertaining story, it will sell. He cited ‘Parasite’ as a good example for an Asian movie that was able to tap into the international market. “Besides science fantasy like superhero movies are in vogue, it’s hard to believe that somebody even in a remote corner of India or an island like Sri Lanka would not be able to identify with them.”

He said that sci-fi and action translate well across borders because one does not need to be able to understand the language in an action movie to be able to make sense of it and enjoy it. Although he opined that sci-fi and action share a universal language, few local science fiction have, in either book or movie form, gained international or even regional recognition. Seneviratne begged to differ, pointing out that Sri Lankan science fiction is gradually gaining momentum. “Amanda Jay for example, won the 2017 Fairway National Literary Award for her ‘The Other One'” Seneviratne identified Navin Weeraratne and Yudanjaya Wijeratne as two other promising science fiction writers. “Local sci-fi movies have not gained global or regional recognition, but that’s not a dilemma specific to Sri Lanka. In fact, only Hollywood can pull it off. It can’t be the huge budgets, because the budgets of Chinese movies are almost equal to those of Hollywood movies and their box office is likely to overtake Hollywood within five years, but they are virtually unheard of outside their country.”

He explained that the same applies to Bollywood films. “They are a multi-billion dollar industry, a close second to Hollywood. But again they are not very popular outside the Asian region.” Seneviratne opined that it’s all in the story telling. “There’s something in the way that Hollywood tells a story that appeals to mass audiences. If you master that art of story-telling, that’s half the battle.

 

 


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Islamophobia and the threat to democratic development

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There’s an ill more dangerous and pervasive than the Coronavirus that’s currently sweeping Sri Lanka. That is the fear to express one’s convictions. Across the public sector of the country in particular many persons holding high office are stringently regulating and controlling the voices of their consciences and this bodes ill for all and the country.

The corrupting impact of fear was discussed in this column a couple of weeks ago when dealing with the military coup in Myanmar. It stands to the enduring credit of ousted Myanmarese Head of Government Aung San Suu Kyi that she, perhaps for the first time in the history of modern political thought, singled out fear, and not power, as the principal cause of corruption within the individual; powerful or otherwise.

To be sure, power corrupts but the corrupting impact of fear is graver and more devastating. For instance, the fear in a person holding ministerial office or in a senior public sector official, that he would lose position and power as a result of speaking out his convictions and sincere beliefs on matters of the first importance, would lead to a country’s ills going unaddressed and uncorrected.

Besides, the individual concerned would be devaluing himself in the eyes of all irrevocably and revealing himself to be a person who would be willing to compromise his moral integrity for petty worldly gain or a ‘mess of pottage’. This happens all the while in Lankan public life. Some of those who have wielded and are wielding immense power in Sri Lanka leave very much to be desired from these standards.

It could be said that fear has prevented Sri Lanka from growing in every vital respect over the decades and has earned for itself the notoriety of being a directionless country.

All these ills and more are contained in the current controversy in Sri Lanka over the disposal of the bodies of Covid victims, for example. The Sri Lankan polity has no choice but to abide by scientific advice on this question. Since authorities of the standing of even the WHO have declared that the burial of the bodies of those dying of Covid could not prove to be injurious to the wider public, the Sri Lankan health authorities could go ahead and sanction the burying of the bodies concerned. What’s preventing the local authorities from taking this course since they claim to be on the side of science? Who or what are they fearing? This is the issue that’s crying out to be probed and answered.

Considering the need for absolute truthfulness and honesty on the part of all relevant persons and quarters in matters such as these, the latter have no choice but to resign from their positions if they are prevented from following the dictates of their consciences. If they are firmly convinced that burials could bring no harm, they are obliged to take up the position that burials should be allowed.

If any ‘higher authority’ is preventing them from allowing burials, our ministers and officials are conscience-bound to renounce their positions in protest, rather than behave compromisingly and engage in ‘double think’ and ‘double talk’. By adopting the latter course they are helping none but keeping the country in a state of chronic uncertainty, which is a handy recipe for social instabiliy and division.

In the Sri Lankan context, the failure on the part of the quarters that matter to follow scientific advice on the burials question could result in the aggravation of Islamophobia, or hatred of the practitioners of Islam, in the country. Sri Lanka could do without this latter phobia and hatred on account of its implications for national stability and development. The 30 year war against separatist forces was all about the prevention by military means of ‘nation-breaking’. The disastrous results for Sri Lanka from this war are continuing to weigh it down and are part of the international offensive against Sri Lanka in the UNHCR.

However, Islamophobia is an almost world wide phenomenon. It was greatly strengthened during Donald Trump’s presidential tenure in the US. While in office Trump resorted to the divisive ruling strategy of quite a few populist authoritarian rulers of the South. Essentially, the manoeuvre is to divide and rule by pandering to the racial prejudices of majority communities.

It has happened continually in Sri Lanka. In the initial post-independence years and for several decades after, it was a case of some populist politicians of the South whipping-up anti-Tamil sentiments. Some Tamil politicians did likewise in respect of the majority community. No doubt, both such quarters have done Sri Lanka immeasurable harm. By failing to follow scientific advice on the burial question and by not doing what is right, Sri Lanka’s current authorities are opening themselves to the charge that they are pandering to religious extremists among the majority community.

The murderous, destructive course of action adopted by some extremist sections among Muslim communities world wide, including of course Sri Lanka, has not earned the condemnation it deserves from moderate Muslims who make-up the preponderant majority in the Muslim community. It is up to moderate opinion in the latter collectivity to come out more strongly and persuasively against religious extremists in their midst. It will prove to have a cementing and unifying impact among communities.

It is not sufficiently appreciated by governments in the global South in particular that by voicing for religious and racial unity and by working consistently towards it, they would be strengthening democratic development, which is an essential condition for a country’s growth in all senses.

A ‘divided house’ is doomed to fall; this is the lesson of history. ‘National security’ cannot be had without human security and peaceful living among communities is central to the latter. There cannot be any ‘double talk’ or ‘politically correct’ opinions on this question. Truth and falsehood are the only valid categories of thought and speech.

Those in authority everywhere claiming to be democratic need to adopt a scientific outlook on this issue as well. Studies conducted on plural societies in South Asia, for example, reveal that the promotion of friendly, cordial ties among communities invariably brings about healing among estranged groups and produces social peace. This is the truth that is waiting to be acted upon.

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Pakistan’s love of Sri Lanka

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By Sanjeewa Jayaweera

It was on 3rd January 1972 that our family arrived in Karachi from Moscow. Our departure from Moscow had been delayed for a few weeks due to the military confrontation between Pakistan and India. It ended on 16th December 1971. After that, international flights were not permitted for some time.

The contrast between Moscow and Karachi was unbelievable. First and foremost, Moscow’s temperature was near minus 40 degrees centigrade, while in Karachi, it was sunny and a warm 28 degrees centigrade. However, what struck us most was the extreme warmth with which the airport authorities greeted our family. As my father was a diplomat, we were quickly ushered to the airport’s VIP Lounge. We were in transit on our way to Rawalpindi, the airport serving the capital of Islamabad.

We quickly realized that the word “we are from Sri Lanka” opened all doors just as saying “open sesame” gained entry to Aladdin’s cave! The broad smile, extreme courtesy, and genuine warmth we received from the Pakistani people were unbelievable.

This was all to do with Mrs Sirima Bandaranaike’s decision to allow Pakistani aircraft to land in Colombo to refuel on the way to Dhaka in East Pakistan during the military confrontation between Pakistan and India. It was a brave decision by Mrs Bandaranaike (Mrs B), and the successive governments and Sri Lanka people are still enjoying the fruits of it. Pakistan has been a steadfast and loyal supporter of our country. They have come to our assistance time and again in times of great need when many have turned their back on us. They have indeed been an “all-weather” friend of our country.

Getting back to 1972, I was an early beneficiary of Pakistani people’s love for Sri Lankans. I failed the entrance exam to gain entry to the only English medium school in Islamabad! However, when I met the Principal, along with my father, he said, “Sanjeewa, although you failed the entrance exam, I will this time make an exception as Sri Lankans are our dear friends.” After that, the joke around the family dinner table was that I owed my education in Pakistan to Mrs B!

At school, my brother and I were extended a warm welcome and always greeted “our good friends from Sri Lanka.” I felt when playing cricket for our college; our runs were cheered more loudly than of others.

One particular incident that I remember well was when the Embassy received a telex from the Foreign inistry. It requested that our High Commissioner seek an immediate meeting with the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Mr Zulifikar Ali Bhutto (ZB), and convey a message from Mrs B. The message requested that an urgent shipment of rice be dispatched to Sri Lanka as there would be an imminent rice shortage. As the Ambassador was not in the station, the responsibility devolved on my father.

It usually takes about a week or more to get an audience with the Prime Minister (PM) of a foreign country due to their busy schedule. However, given the urgency, my father spoke to the Foreign Ministry’s Permanent Sectary, who fortunately was our neighbour and sought an urgent appointment. My father received a call from the PM’s secretary around 10 P.M asking him to come over to the PM’s residence. My father met ZB around midnight. ZB was about to retire to bed and, as such, was in his pyjamas and gown enjoying a cigar! He had greeted my father and had asked, “Mr Jayaweera, what can we do for great friend Madam Bandaranaike?. My father conveyed the message from Colombo and quietly mentioned that there would be riots in the country if there is no rice!

ZB had immediately got the Food Commissioner of Pakistan on the line and said, “I want a shipload of rice to be in Colombo within the next 72 hours!” The Food Commissioner reverted within a few minutes, saying that nothing was available and the last export shipment had left the port only a few hours ago to another country. ZB had instructed to turn the ship around and send it to Colombo. This despite protests from the Food Commissioner about terms and conditions of the Letter of Credit prohibiting non-delivery. Sri Lanka got its delivery of rice!

The next was the visit of Mrs B to Pakistan. On arrival in Rawalpindi airport, she was given a hero’s welcome, which Pakistan had previously only offered to President Gaddafi of Libya, who financially backed Pakistan with his oil money. That day, I missed school and accompanied my parents to the airport. On our way, we witnessed thousands of people had gathered by the roadside to welcome Mrs B.

When we walked to the airport’s tarmac, thousands of people were standing in temporary stands waving Sri Lanka and Pakistan flags and chanting “Sri Lanka Pakistan Zindabad.” The noise emanating from the crowd was as loud and passionate as the cheering that the Pakistani cricket team received during a test match. It was electric!

I believe she was only the second head of state given the privilege of addressing both assemblies of Parliament. The other being Gaddafi. There was genuine affection from Mrs B amongst the people of Pakistan.

I always remember the indefatigable efforts of Mr Abdul Haffez Kardar, a cabinet minister and the President of the Pakistan Cricket Board. From around 1973 onwards, he passionately championed Sri Lanka’s cause to be admitted as a full member of the International Cricket Council (ICC) and granted test status. Every year, he would propose at the ICC’s annual meeting, but England and Australia’s veto kept us out until 1981.

I always felt that our Cricket Board made a mistake by not inviting Pakistan to play our inaugural test match. We should have appreciated Mr Kardar and Pakistan’s efforts. In 1974 the Pakistan board invited our team for a tour involving three test matches and a few first-class games. Most of those who played in our first test match was part of that tour, and no doubt gained significant exposure playing against a highly talented Pakistani team.

Several Pakistani greats were part of the Pakistan and India team that played a match soon after the Central Bank bomb in Colombo to prove that it was safe to play cricket in Colombo. It was a magnificent gesture by both Pakistan and India. Our greatest cricket triumph was in Pakistan when we won the World Cup in 1996. I am sure the players and those who watched the match on TV will remember the passionate support our team received that night from the Pakistani crowd. It was like playing at home!

I also recall reading about how the Pakistani government air freighted several Multi Barrell artillery guns and ammunition to Sri Lanka when the A rmy camp in Jaffna was under severe threat from the LTTE. This was even more important than the shipload of rice that ZB sent. This was crucial as most other countries refused to sell arms to our country during the war.

Time and again, Pakistan has steadfastly supported our country’s cause at the UNHCR. No doubt this year, too, their diplomats will work tirelessly to assist our country.

We extend a warm welcome to Mr Imran Khan, the Prime Minister of Pakistan. He is a truly inspirational individual who was undoubtedly an excellent cricketer. Since retirement from cricket, he has decided to get involved in politics, and after several years of patiently building up his support base, he won the last parliamentary elections. I hope that just as much as he galvanized Sri Lankan cricketers, his political journey would act as a catalyst for people like Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene to get involved in politics. Cricket has been called a “gentleman’s game.” Whilst politics is far from it!.

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Covid-19 health rules disregarded at entertainment venues?

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Believe me, seeing certain videos, on social media, depicting action, on the dance floor, at some of these entertainment venues, got me wondering whether this Coronavirus pandemic is REAL!

To those having a good time, at these particular venues, and, I guess, the management, as well, what the world is experiencing now doesn’t seem to be their concerned.

Obviously, such irresponsible behaviour could create more problems for those who are battling to halt the spread of Covid-19, and the new viriant of Covid, in our part of the world.

The videos, on display, on social media, show certain venues, packed to capacity – with hardly anyone wearing a mask, and social distancing…only a dream..

How can one think of social distancing while gyrating, on a dance floor, that is over crowded!

If this trend continues, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Coronavirus makes its presence felt…at such venues.

And, then, what happens to the entertainment scene, and those involved in this field, especially the musicians? No work, whatsoever!

Lots of countries have closed nightclubs, and venues, where people gather, in order to curtail the spread of this deadly virus that has already claimed the lives of thousands.

Thailand did it and the country is still having lots of restrictions, where entertainment is concerned, and that is probably the reason why Thailand has been able to control the spread of the Coronavirus.

With a population of over 69 million, they have had (so far), a little over 25,000 cases, and 83 deaths, while we, with a population of around 21 million, have over 80,000 cases, and more than 450 deaths.

I’m not saying we should do away with entertainment – totally – but we need to follow a format, connected with the ‘new normal,’ where masks and social distancing are mandatory requirements at these venues. And, dancing, I believe, should be banned, at least temporarily, as one can’t maintain the required social distance, while on the dance floor, especially after drinks.

Police spokesman DIG Ajith Rohana keeps emphasising, on TV, radio, and in the newspapers, the need to adhere to the health regulations, now in force, and that those who fail to do so would be penalised.

He has also stated that plainclothes officers would move around to apprehend such offenders.

Perhaps, he should instruct his officers to pay surprise visits to some of these entertainment venues.

He would certainly have more than a bus load of offenders to be whisked off for PCR/Rapid Antigen tests!

I need to quote what Dr. H.T. Wickremasinghe said in his article, published in The Island of Tuesday, February 16th, 2021:

“…let me conclude, while emphasising the need to continue our general public health measures, such as wearing masks, social distancing, and avoiding crowded gatherings, to reduce the risk of contact with an infected person.

“There is no science to beat common sense.”

But…do some of our folks have this thing called COMMON SENSE!

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