Midweek Review
Cat’s Eye
Asoka Handagama wins again

Asoka Handagama has won the best film award for the third Cinemaya Festival of Asian Cinema: Cinefan. His film This is My Moon won the best film award for 2001 on the 2nd of September at the closing awards ceremony held at the India Habitat Centre in Delhi. This film was well received by the Indian audiences and created more than ripples. This excellent film was definitely one of the best in the 53 films screened at this festival. Handagama, brilliant director and talented writer has much to his credit. Among the awards that this film has already won are at the Singapore Film Festival 2001, where he received the Young Cinema Award for Best Film and at the Chonju Film Festival 2001 where he received the Woosuk Award for best film and the Bronze Remi Award for best low budget film. It is perhaps fitting then that this film and Handagama’s artistic and pertinent criticism of society in times of war was evaluated by a jury presided over by none other than our own distinguished Sumithra Peiris.

The Cinefan Film Festival was presided over by some of the best film directors, producers and actors of our time. Also on the jury panel were Sharmila Tagore, who has worked with film veteran Satyajit Ray, and Philip Cheah, who is the director of the Singapore Film Festival. Some of the promising films screened were And Life Goes On by Abbas Kiorostami of Iran, and Clouds of May by Nuri Bilge of Turkey. This year there were certain themes that the festival focussed on. It included a desire to see how the East constructs images of itself, and how the West constructs contemporary images of the East. Hence, the French version of the Mahabharata by Peter Brooke and The Last Emperor by the Italian Bernardo Bertolucci were also screened. The country that was the focus for this year was Turkey. It was an interesting choice as Turkey’s geographical positioning and political inclinations are quite complex; for while it reflects itself in certain ways as an Asian country, it is also in many ways a country trying to construct itself as part of Europe with a deep desire to join the European Union.

Sumithra Peries

Sumithra Peries who headed the jury of this prestigious festival is a film maker, technician and editor of most of Lester James Peries’ films. Peries gained acclaim when her film Gahanu Lamai not only became extremely popular in Sri Lanka but succeeded internationally as well. Known as a director who focusses many of her films on the roles of women in society with films such as A Mother Alone and The Eldest Daughter, her contribution to Sri Lankan cinema is tremendous. The accolades that Sumithra Peries obtained, range from winning the Golden Peacock award in Delhi in 1965 to being honored at Deauville for her and Lester James Peries’ contributions to Asian cinema.

Peries focussed in her concluding speech for the festival on why the medium of cinema was very important to her. She spoke of how films are "immediate," can cater to the masses and are often dynamic in quality. The necessity for festivals of this calibre was keenly appreciated by her. How else, she claimed, would one fight the blockbusters made purely for monetary reasons. Focussing on Asian cinema was also important for it would ensure that "Western cinema does not wipe us off the face of the earth." She also noted that approximately half the films screened at this festival were based on the theme of violence and its effects on society, and its destructive forces. Peries applauded the fact that these Asian films avoided what popular cinema does, which is to "glorify violence". For Peries Asian cinema at its best is "dynamic and radical in style and content".

Peries’ spoke to Cat’s Eye about her next film as being set during Portuguese rule in Sri Lanka when a Sri Lankan queen was brought up by the Portuguese so that Portugal could have a permanent footing in Sri Lanka. This did not happen and had it, we would have been another Philippines.

On commenting on the relevance of This is My Moon, Peries said that this noteworthy film depicts the volatile climate of our society and the political upheavals of our times. It is our duty to give voice to those concerns affecting our society. It is necessary that films like this are appreciated as they attempt to change the social order. Today society is dysfunctional, there is a lack of opportunities, a lack of jobs, there is interference from foreign powers and there are the negative effects of globalization. Today’s world is very volatile and this is why our youth is concerned and want to try to make a difference. This is why many of the films at this festival focussed on the ruptures of society; it is not time to hold hands and sing love songs".

Sumithra expressed her appreciation of Handagama’s film which, using war as the backdrop, explored the dehumanizing effects of war on our society. Handagama is very sensitive in his approach to the situation in Sri Lanka. He does not attack the army, for when the soldiers come to collect the deserter they are very respectful to the villagers and it is rather the young village girl who flirts with the officer. At the same time he does not condemn the Tamils either, but focuses on how the violence of our society causes such upheaval in our communities which are left with no opportunity, no hope. Peries also commented on the Tamil woman who spoke little but was not actually silent and made things happen in the village. Her sexuality is used not in terms of exploiting her body, but rather as a way to ward off aggressions against her. Her power within the context of the film gives us hope that she and her child will have a better future and that there is hope for them.

This is My Moon

Asoka Handagama’s masterpiece This is My Moon includes wonderful still images that enhance the moods of many of its characters. The plot involves the rape of a Tamil woman by a Sinhalese soldier and then subsequently, the entry of this Tamil woman into a poverty-stricken Sinhalese village where she causes confusion in the life of the villagers. Handagama has made this film with a very low budget. His achievement in the light of monetary restrictions is to be doubly appreciated. The auditorium in Delhi for the screening was full and the discussion after the film was intense. Discussions prompted by this film are undoubtedly somewhat provocative since it critiques the institutionalization of Buddhism. Handagama himself says that while he has nothing against the philosophy of the Buddha, he sees flaws in Buddhism institutions in the Sri Lankan context. The films also delves into the question of the glorification of war which at the same time needlessly destroys human life. On speaking to Handagama on this film he had this to say about his reasons for making the film.

First of all winning the award for this means a great deal to me. I am happy to be appreciated for my efforts. I made this film because nearly half my life has been at a time when the situation in the country has gone from bad to worse and I felt I needed to say something about what is happening. My method of releasing this film is also experimental. To release it in the normal manner would require Rs. 2.5 million which I do not have, so I decided to release it gradually and on a small scale. You see I only show one screening at a time and I am always present to watch the film with the audience and then to promote discussions thereafter.

I really want this film to make people talk about what is happening in the country. People often come to see films to relax and enjoy themselves and not to really talk about issues, so I did not want continuous screenings, but prefer to have focussed showings that will generate discussion about the content and the context of the film. While this film is a creation of my imagination, it is inspired by reality and my observations on society in Sri Lanka. This is my contribution to what is happening. Even the title of the film was not something that came about until after the film was made. I used the word moon to symbolize hope. For in the middle of all this violence there is still a way out.