A call to preserve national cinematic history


Is film archiving in Sri Lanka important, some ask. Why would world cinema royalty such as, Martin Scorsese come forward to archive Dr. Lester James Peries’ Nidhanaya, Sri Lanka’s most treasured cinematic labour, if it is not? The Venice Film Festival which was concluded recently premiered the restored Nidhanaya under its Venice Classic Segment saluting classic masterpieces from around the world and this is a fresh bugle call for a national film archive in Sri Lanka. We today reveal the story behind Nidhanaya’s grueling journey to restoration.

By Randima Attygalle

"Cinematic history is essentially an integral part of a nation’s history. Clothes worn, linen used - all of this reflects a way of life in a particular era in history. Thanks to the movies, we know how Cleopatra did her eyes! Similarly, the future generation would be curious to know what Galle Face or Pettah looked liked 50 years previously, just as the present generation is privy to images of these landmarks 50 years ago thanks to the local cinema. Today cinematic history is taken very seriously in many countries which, alas, doesn’t happen here," said veteran film-maker Sumitra Peries. In the wake of the Venice Film Festival which screened Dr. Lester James Peries’ cinematic masterpiece Nidhanaya under the ‘Venice Classic Segment’ on August 31, Lester James Peries and Sumitra Peries Foundation (LJPSP Foundation) is lobbying for a national film archive which the iconic film maker called for way back in 1957!

"When I first attempted to lobby for a national film archive over 50 years ago, soon after I completed Rekawa, I was mocked by many. ‘Having done only one film, this man is trying to reach the moon!’, they said. Now I’m talking in 2013 and still there is no film archive. I cannot fathom why there is no state action to establish one which will preserve part of our national history," said Peries.

Lost cinematic landmarks

Nidhanaya was the catalyst for the revived interest. It was presumed ‘preserved’ in the land of its birth until somebody from France, interested in restoring and archiving this masterpiece, met with Dr. Peries in the early 2000s. First screened in 1970, Nidhanaya put Sri Lanka on the world map by winning the Silver Lion of St. Mark at the Venice Film Festival in 1972 and being recognized as an ‘Outstanding Film of the Year’ at the London Film Festival the same year. In 1997 it was voted by the critics as the best Sri Lankan film ever made when the 50th Anniversary of Sri Lankan cinema was commemorated. Celebrating the World Film Centenary, Frances’s repository of cinema - Cinemathèque Française, included Nidhanya among the World’s Best 100 Films ever made. the French showed their interest in restoring and archiving Nidhanaya, it was revealed that the original negative was burnt as a result of what is called the ‘vinegar syndrome’. What happens here is when the negative first catches the bug, the rot starts spreading all over the film and it can spread to others also. Since there is no archiving facility is Sri Lanka, the only option is to destroy the original negative. How what was happening was not smelt before the damage was done is a mystery," Peries said.

To the astonishment of the French it was discovered that Nidhanaya was lost to the country of its birth. It is not our only ill-fated cinematic treasure - we have lost several more landmarks in the world cinema - Gamperaliya and Sandeshaya to name just two other classic examples.

"After what happened to Nidhanaya, I feared the fate of Gamaperaliya. Fortunately, I had a friend at the University of Southern California (USC) who intervened to preserve it. Once the USC accepts a film for preservation, it claims copyright. Today we cannot claim Gamperaliya but I’m glad that it’s not lost to the world because it’s safely preserved somewhere," said Lester James.

Telling us about Nidhanaya’s journey to restoration, Sumitra Peries said, "it was through the Randeniyas (celebrated actor Ravindra Randeniya and son Sameera Manabharana Randeniya) that Lester and I were connected with renowned American film director, Martin Scorsese who is the Head of World Cinema Foundation (WCF), and Douglas Liable, Managing Director, WCF.

``The Film Team headed by Ravindra (Randeniya) was informed by their business associate, Indian film director Shivendra Singh, that WCF was keen to restore Nidhanaya and all of us met to discuss the project in October last year. We had absolutely no source material available that they could lay hands on for the restoration process and eventually only a dupe negative was found at National Film Archive of India (NFAI) in Pune by Shivendra Singh."

Journey to restoration

‘The attachment our family has to Dr. Lester James Peries is a very close one. My parents acted together in his Desa Nisa and God King even before their marriage. It was Dr. Peries who signed as witness at my parents’ wedding’ and also at my brother’s wedding. His home is no strange place to us and the respect and regard we have for him as the living legend who single handedly put Sri Lankan cinema on the world map is immense," Sameera Manabharana Randeniya, Director, LJPSP Foundation said.

Randeniya who sees Peries as a ‘fountain of wisdom’ adds, "truly, his films are his children and to hear that the negative of Nidhanaya was burnt due to vinegar syndrome would have been to him like a father hearing his favourite child was killed! Each time he spoke of this greatest creation of his, I have observed how his expression changed. This always sparked a desire in me to do something about Nidhanaya, yet I was not sure of where to start or what to do."

During this time Shivendra Singh contacted The Film Team with the good news that WCF was interested in selecting a film by Lester James Peries for restoration. This outfit headed by veteran artiste Ravindra Randeniya is the largest service provider for filming in Sri Lanka and Maldives. They have also been the Sri Lankan partners for many movies filmed in the island and with directors such as Deepa Mehta, Anurag Kashyap and Berengar Pfhal. As Manabharana Randeniya asserts, although the majority of its time is spent for movie production, The Film Team is also engaged in ‘giving back to Sri Lankan cinema’ through free seminars and theatre workshops held by celebrated drama teachers such as Andrew Selivanov. Their labours in the restoration of Nidhanaya further hold testimony to this.

"Acclaimed Indian film director, Shivendra Singh, Chairman of Dungapur Films who has been a work colleague as well as a close friend of The Film Team is also an activist for film restoration and archiving. At the same time through The Film Team, Shivendra has met Dr .Peries and interviewed him as well. Shivendra is no stranger to Dr. Peries’ work, as he has learnt of him as a student of cinema. When I went to my father with the news that there is hope for Nidhanaya he agreed wholeheartedly to help and shortly after Douglas Liable got back to New York he called me to say that they have selected Nidhanaya as the film they would like to restore and archive."

Between December last year and June this year, process for securing the restoration rights between NFAI and the producer of Nidhanya G.R. Padmarajah and Chairman, Film Corporation Asoka Serasinghe commenced. "Due to my father’s keen interest in the project, he was extremely influential in securing the rights and getting the National Film Corporation to bless the project. I would like to thank all parties who labored towards this endeavour," Randeniya added.

A worldwide search for a copy Nidhanaya surfaced a few positive copies in a few parts of the world including Sri Lanka, mostly in very poor conditions. The only negative was found by Shivendra at NFAI, Pune. The restoration was finally completed at the restoration lab Cineteca di Bologna in Italy, using material mainly from DEGETO, a German Production Company and some from NFAI. "I have to specially thank Cecilia Cenciarelli of the Cineteca lab who got her staff to work day in day out to finish the restoration on time for Venice Film Festival," Randeniya said.

Achieving the impossible

As Lester James Peries once said, "it was divine intervention" that made the restoration of Nidhanaya possible. "Indeed it is, when one thinks of how everything connected," Randeniya endorsed. What was it to be watching restored Nidhanaya at the celebrated Venice Film Festival, under Venice Classic Segment which salutes the classic masterpieces from around the world? "It was so nostalgic and brought back a flood of memories. It was so clean with no scratches, no dots and the Italian audience before which it was screened was very responsive," recalled Ms. Peries.

Randeniya who was also present at this prestigious event added, "Seeing Nidhanaya in Venice was an amazing experience. Whilst watching the movie I was reminded of what Dr. Lester told me when I broke the news to him about the restoration of Nidhanaya being completed- ‘you achieve the impossible because when you started you didn’t have the film to restore and there we were, with the team who worked wholeheartedly giving their best to restore Nidhanaya, premiering it in front of a world audience. It was truly a blissful experience."

He also extended his special thanks to the Sri Lankan community living in Italy for their participation and to Alberto Barbera, Director of the Venice Film Festival who came after the screening personally to thank Mrs. Peries for her attendance on behalf of Dr. Peries. "We had an almost full house the night of the premier and by the second day of the screening, all the seats were filled and the majority were not Lankans but an audience of mixed nationalities. This was a reflection on the level of admiration Dr. Peries’ work is paid around the world."

Commenting on the ‘Final Cut’ segment, where the film festival supports films that are in the process of post-production and struggling to be completed to be presented to an audience of potential buyers, producers and distributors, Randeniya said, "this year the focus was on African films and it is a good concept that could be adopted in the local industry, as there are many good filmmakers struggling to release their films."

Realizing a vision

Sharing his perceptions about the importance of setting up a national film archive, Trustee, LJPSP Foundation, Yadamini Gunawardena said, "LJPSP Foundation is serious about realizing the visionary statement made in 1957 by Dr. Lester James Peries, calling for a national cinema archives. Time and time again, this national necessity was highlighted and today, it is once again brought to the attention of the nation. If not for untiring personal efforts of a dedicated few and global friends, Sri Lanka as a nation would have never had the privilege of screening Nidhanaya - her best ever cinematic creation - ever again."

He further asserted than as a body incorporated by an Act of Parliament and with great understanding and commitment towards preserving cinematic creations for posterity, LJPSP Foundation takes the establishing of a national cinema archives very seriously. "While preserving is for the benefit of future generations, inheriting of this industrial and technical capability will enhance Sri Lanka as an attractive cinema friendly destination. We are ready with three proposals, and we hope that national institutions concerned will work along with us to ensure and envision His Excellency the President’s wish and promise made to the industry and its iconic legend Sri Lankabhimanya Dr. Lester James Peries"

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