Directed by young film maker, Sanjeewa Pushpakumara, and produced by the director and Manohan Nanayakkara, the movie premiered in January 2011, as part of the Rotterdam Festival’s Tiger Awards Competition.
With Sri Lanka’s defence authorities poised to launch an immediate investigation against those involved in the making of the movie and the funding sources, they have raised the query as to why a film that was considered ‘offensive and unsuitable’ by the authorities, was certified as suitable for screening at an international film screening by the Public Performance Board (PPB).
With the defence and public performance approvers locked in battle on the ‘whys’ and the ‘wherefores,’ film makers are defending their right to creative expression, claiming that what was prior-approved by the PPB should not been banned by other authorities.
Hulugalle insists: “This movie is said to be in bad taste. We are told the film contains scenes that demean the Armed Forces. It should not have been allowed in the first place,” the Director General of the Media Centre for National Security, Lakshman Hulugalle, said.
Admitting that he is yet to see the movie, the MCNS Head said, “Permission has not been obtained to cast actors in military fatigue, and the manner of the portrayal is said to be insulting to the Forces.”
While he demands serious action being taken against the screening of the movie without permission, film makers say that this was not – and would not be – the first time to have actors in battle fatigue and would not be so.
Violation of creative expression
“An absurd argument,” said Prasanna Vithanage, an award-winning film director, who feels that those who have not seen a movie, but bases their judgment on mere hearsay would be “dangerous and detrimental to the art.” He further noted: “There is little understanding of the art form among the authorities. The PPB is more like a chopping board than one with aesthetic appreciation and understanding.”
Amidst mounting criticism against the PPB, Chairman, Gamini Sumanasekera said, the film was allowed a “one-time presentation to a selected invited audience without children.” However, he said, screening was allowed in April though it was screened on 11 July.
Questioned as to why another authority was allowed to decide on the screening of the film, Sumanasekera offered no comment, which adds another twist to this controversial tale. It was the BMICH that decided whether Flying Fish, as well as the French Film Festival, was to be or not to be.
Finance and Administrative Manager of the BMICH, Jayantha Ratnayake said, “The film was not according to the cultural requirements of our country. We will publish a paper notice in six papers, clearly mentioning our suspicions in connection with the French Film Festival, per se.”
How the Board of Management of the Bandaranaike National Memorial Foundation (BNMF) can be the disapproving authority of a film scheduled for screening may pose an interesting question, but neither the PPB nor the Ministry of Cultural Affairs and Arts, offered an answer in this regard.
However, Presidential Adviser and Member of the BNMF, Sunimal Fernando, who ‘marched out of the special screening on 11 July with his wife, due to offensive content in the film’ came with strong justification for the banning of the screening, calling it a “culturally and socially insensitive film.” He also demanded to know on what basis the PPB granted any kind of approval for its screening when its content clearly cast the Armed Forces in a negative light.
“Both the French Embassy and the PPB are playing with words. The PPB has failed the country by allowing this screening and has violated its primary duty of protecting the interests of the Sri Lankan viewer and ensuing suitability and sensitivity,” he charged.
Justifying his condemnation of the movie, Fernando said, the film portrayed the two sides – Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Sri Lanka Army (SLA), in a completely unacceptable manner.
“It was very black and white. The LTTE was portrayed as an organization engaged in action, by any normal standards, aggressive and anti-social, but geared towards a higher purpose – the ushering in of a new order which would liberate the Tamils. In stark contrast, the Sri Lankan soldier was portrayed as people not motivated by a higher purpose but in service for the mere gratification of sexual impulses. The Flying Fish was our solider, who impregnates women and flies away to another,” he said.
The other reasons for raising objections, he said, was the portrayal of women – as being easy prey. “It degraded Sri Lankan women in general and to the women in that audience that day, it must have been a humiliating experience,” he opined.
Fernando added, the film was truly defeated on its artistic finesse – or the sheer lack of it. “Flying Fish contains scenes of explicit sex – the last refuge of a failed artiste. The stark, raw scenes were shown twice, not once. I found no artistic value in the film made by an unsuccessful and incompetent artiste, he said, claiming the offensive nature of the film, drove him and his wife out of the selected audience. We marched but in protest,” he said.
In bad taste
Besides, Fernando said, the audience was controlled by the French Embassy, with an embassy official personally checking those entering the premises and the invitations they carried. “Nobody could have walked in without her permission. Though the PPB certification has been granted on the basis that the screening would be for an adult audience and children would be excluded, this was not so. There were children and the embassy official allowed them in,” he said, insisting that the conditions on which the screening was allowed had been violated by the mission.
While Fernando argues the point that the PPB should have in the first instance disallowed the screening of the film due to being injurious to public sentiments, leading cinematographer, Dharmasiri Bandaranayake, insists that there is much more than what meets the eye in the banning of the movie.
“We may have issues about the narrowness of the PPB, but in this instance, the legal requirements have been met by the organizers. Permission for screening has been duly granted by the PPB. It is degrading that some authorities sprang into action, halting the entire festival, to cover their own back. As an artiste, I would worry if the PPB’s mandate is high-jacked by another, as in this case,” Bandaranayake said.
What is touted therefore cannot be accepted as the actual reasons, and those who were responsible for the ban should explain the real reasons why decided to do so. The PPB owes the public an explanation why it could not defend its own decision, and the venue managers as to who authorized them to cancel an entire film festival due to a single listed film, which has been PPB approved.
Bandaranayke said it is truly sad for a country when regimented jackboots would seek to crush artistic expression. “Cinema and all other art forms are for the public. There is no need to hide them. Films and literature are created for society and let the final decision lie with the public, not the authorities. Each day, Sri Lanka shows signs of a country in regress. It violates and degrades all forms of creativity,” he said.
As for the movie Flying Fish, the writing is now on the wall. It will have to fly-away.
With additional reporting by Vinoja Rajamani