Gamani - Sarath Weerasekera's unceasing waves



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By Dr. Prasanna Cooray


The career sailor, Member of Parliament, Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekera fought the war with a purpose. Even at a time when the political authorities of the country were at sea with regard to their stance on war, SW, the officer and the gentleman, was well grounded. Weerasekera’s enemy was the LTTE terrorists and the Tamil people were his brethren. He always uttered this to the men under his command and proved his words by deeds. This I knew as his subordinate in the Navy. I still remember his very first assignment for me as a young Surgeon Lieutenant attached to the Elara naval base in Karainagar in late 1993 to move out from the base and to go to the people living in the islands on the outskirts of the Jaffna peninsula. That was very much a troubled time and travel (by a dinghy) was neither easy nor safe. Yet, soon, for a young doctor it turned out to be an immensely memorable adventure. First, he had to carry out the command of the boss. Secondly, it came with a lot of empathy and affection to the Tamil civilians who were caught in a brutal war, for a fault that was not theirs.


In the battlefield, apart from the usual duties, Weerasekera had a mission that was far reaching. His sense and taste for ‘art’ as a binding factor to bring together two seemingly drifting away ethnic groups – Sinhala and Tamil – was evident from his undertakings as the CO Elara. He took steps to renovate Hindu temples in Karaitivu and nearby islands and revive their important festivals. This I am sure was much to the joy of a war battered people at a time when celebrating cultural events was a rarity as security took precedence over other aspects of social life. Within the garrison, he took all steps possible to keep the morale of the men under him high. Here again ‘art’ was one of his major armaments. On Saturday afternoons, post-lunch, Weerasekera organized lectures on Sri Lankan history and other matters pertaining to social well-being, which were well received and attended by the young officers and the rank and file. Then on Sunday mornings, were the multi-religious observances where even the citizens mingled freely with the men in unies. However, the pinnacle of his ‘academic’ approach to war, as I see, was the publication of ‘Sayura’. Weerasekera pioneered the birth of this monthly magazine, the first of its kind among the armed forces. This soon turned out to be a platform for the servicemen and their kith and kin to express their common concerns. All this I place on record for one to grasp a sense of his continuing commitment to the well-being of the citizenry of this country, regardless of caste or creed. And with the production of ‘Gamani’, indisputably, Weerasekera’s unceasing waves are forging further ahead.


‘Gamani’ is Weerasekera’s first film. But it speaks volumes for his accomplishment as a master film maker. His selection of shots and scenes throughout the film keep the audience spellbound. The film revolves around a remote village called Gonagala, in the Ampara district. Through each frame he has mingled to perfection the serenity of an otherwise calm far-flung village with the uncertainty and fear that terrorism brought to the lives of its inhabitants. Opening with a scene of the brutal massacre of innocent civilians by the LTTE terrorists, the plot winds round the villagers’ collective struggle for life and their attempts at resisting such future attacks.


The flimsy defense of Gonagala was provided by the Civil Defense Force (CDF). During the bygone heydays of LTTE terrorism, fragile vulnerable villages like Gonagala, where villagers spent sleepless nights in jungles in constant fear of attacks were very much commonplace in this country. In the attempt at beefingup security, the only plausible strategy available for the residents of Gonagala was the strengthening of the CDF, which comprised their own men. This practical exercise involves a sizable part of the film. Although it was an absorbing episode, the director’s decision to opt for a common or garden school teacher (Dilhani Ekanayake) over the venerable monk (W. Jayasiri) or a monk-teacher combination to influence the decision making process of a battle-hardened middle-level military officer (Bimal Jayakody), to provide the training does not appear to be the ideal. Also, the razor sharp eloquence with which she confronts the officer in their initial meetings looks far from natural.


For Weerasekera, who was appointed chief of the Civil Defense Force after his retirement from the Navy, this was a case of sharing his personal experiences and challenges. Equal to the task of transforming the CDF from a bunch of ‘gambattas’ to a force to reckon with that went on to play a crucial role in eliminating brutal terrorism from the country, Weerasekera has captured his personal experience in celluloid to the highest standard of artistry. Perhaps, one may find it difficult to resist reminiscence of 1982 multi award winner ‘An Officer and a Gentleman’ encountering similar scenes pertaining to military training. And what director Taylor Hackford accomplished for Hollywood, Weerasekera has done to perfection for the benefit of Sri Lankan film-goers.


In the quest to defeating terrorists physically, Weerasekera deploys two strategies. One is to vitalize the CDF through proper training. The other is to use the ancient Sri Lankan martial art tradition of ‘angam pora’ to attack the enemy when and where possible. Although one can raise a credibility issue with regard to the effectiveness of ‘angam pora’ in confronting the enemy in this era of sophisticated weaponry, I think yet the decision lies very much within the discretion of the director. Whatever it is, the viewer is treated to a breathtaking feast of ‘angam pora’.


Although one may wonder if brutality has been portrayed more than its due share with scenes of storming terrorists banging infants on the ground and hacking unarmed civilians in cold-blood, Weerasekea’s reasoning behind this will override such concerns. As the theme of the film explicitly spells out "conscience of the eyewitness", Gamani is a real life story. And it is made, among other things, to depict the brutality of terrorism and anguish that tormented the innocent civilian lives – both Sinhalese and Tamil – at a time when the terrorist had a field day.


Further, the film is a creation of a man who was in the thick of everything and had seen all for himself. As Weerasekera claims, the prime motive behind making the movie was to turn the tide against the false propaganda campaign – both local and foreign – that operated in relation to the conduct of the war and the behavior of Sri Lankan armed forces. In fact, what Weerasekera has done will not only surpass his original expectation, but will also help the country to showcase the true face of terrorism and restore the reputation of the armed forces.


In the making of Gamani, Weerasekera has been ably supported by a proficient technical crew. Nadeeka Guruge provides a good musical score to the film. The song Dilhani sings with the school children ‘Dana mana banda Rahula himiyan…’ (written by Weerasekera himself), enthralls the audience, while bringing back fond memories of ‘Sudu sanda eliye…’ of 1956 Lester James’ epic ‘Rekhawa’. In Saman Sigera (camera) and Ravindra Guruge (edit), Weerasekera has found an ideal duo in doing maximum justice to each frame. However, the assistant director could have been more vigilant to have knit-picked the misspelled name-tag ‘Ransinghe’ on the right chest of the trainer sergeant.


Although terrorism ravaged the country for almost three decades, movies made on this theme were few and far between. There again, the ones done were mainly focused in relegating the Sri Lankan armed forces and/or to give justification to the Eelam cause. This was the case with some local as well as international productions. The blockbusters of this macabre project, to my mind, were the ‘My daughter the terrorist’ and ‘Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields’ (the infamous Channel Four production). Beate Arnestad’s ‘My daughter the terrorist’, screened at numerous international film festivals, went on to grab the Best Norwegian TV documentary 2007, Best International Feature Length Documentary at St. Petersburg in 2007, plus a few others. ‘Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields’ is now a center of attraction with the ‘international community’. Now that Weerasekera has come out with his version of the war, it will be interesting to see how the same audience responds to it. This will be an acid test for the ‘international community’ and ‘international film jurists’ alike. Through Gamani, Weerasekera has done great justice, not only to the armed forces that fought tooth and nail to wipe out terrorism from the motherland and the peace loving citizens who loathed terrorism, but also by creating the ‘Best War Film’ ever to be produced in Sri Lanka.


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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