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Protecting Culture Or Fishing
In Troubled Waters?

By Prasanna Ratnayake

06 July, 2007

“What a Life, What a Time, What a Country!”

An email arrives from my friend Sathyajith Maitipe. He has just received instructions from the Censorship Board to remove the sexual scenes from his film, even if he expects to get an Adults Only certificate. This is no surprise; similar demands have been made of other filmmakers: Ashoka Handagama (Aksharaya / Letter from the Fire) and Prasanna Vithanage (Purahada Kaluwara / Darkness of the Full Moon) in the past. In this small response to Sathyajith’s situation I shall not write about film criticism or censorship, but I do want to share some of my first reactions.

I saw Bora Diya Pokuna (Scent of the Lotus Pond) at a private preview at the Russian Culture Centre in Colombo. There are many levels at which one can read this film, particularly in the context of modern Sri Lankan cinema. Using the style and forms of the great Buddhist Jathaka narratives, Maitipe addresses issues such as the economic crisis, poverty, gender discrimination, desire and sexual politics — all crucial to the current state of our society. For me, these reincarnations of Jathaka-style stories give us many insights into contemporary society and it is incomprehensible to me that the cultural authorities should want to prevent us engaging with them.

The Sri Lankan Public Performance Board operates under the Ministry of Defence. Their brief is to keep an eye on anything they considered might damage Culture or interfere with National Security. It strikes me as ironically amusing that this authority thinks it can protect national culture and security by banning several sex scenes from a film. Whose culture are they trying to protect? Who’s security? The fantasy that the Public Performance Board is protecting us from insidious influences by banning the creative contribution of an astute filmmaker reveals the macabre contradictions that are destroying our country. With the enormous damage to human beings and to culture in Sri Lanka unfolding daily, the two orders of destruction somehow do not compute.

Last month in Geneva the Human Rights Council expressed its concern about the internal displacement of 300,000 people in the past 18 months and the thousands of abductions, extrajudicial killings and the general humanitarian crisis in Sri Lanka. The chairman of the Presidential Committee on Disappearances says: Last six months 430 killings, 2120 Abductions and disappearances. And last week members of the UN Security Council equated the crucial tragedy in Sri Lanka with those in Darfur, Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia.

The sheer weight of these seemingly endless disasters has encouraged widespread amnesia in the country itself, compounded by the difficulty of determining what is real and what myth is in the highly charged militarised, sectarian and bigoted atmosphere.

Protecting Culture? Is this banning of sex scenes not a distortion of what is essentially a political not a cultural problem? It is a political question because it is a question of how political power controls culture. But there is also a cultural question— about our relationship with the present political power structure.

Sexuality can hardly be considered absent from Sri Lankan culture! Our ancient literature, religious texts and rituals, folk customs and cultures, art, music and dance, all are deeply imbued with sexual references and representations. Sexuality has always been essential to our culture; in fact, much of our classical erotic literature was written by Buddhist monks. As an institution, the traditional Buddhist temple has long had its internal and external sexual politics. The State too has sexual politics: a good example being the glorification of the frescoes at Sigiriya with their overtly sexual and secular representations of ample maidens serving their earthly lords. However, this note is not about the history of our erotic culture.

As mentioned earlier in the UN and other statistics; displacements, disappearances, abductions, assassinations, round-ups, raids and rapes — none, apparently, threats to National Security — are entirely acceptable in Sri Lanka under the category of Patriotism. We are assured, however, that the government is sincerely and relentlessly engaged in liberating us from all insecurities, so we should be grateful to them that they include sex amongst the insidious enemies from which we must be protected!

A last observation: over the past two months more than 100 unidentified, mutilated, decapitated and burned bodies have been found in Colombo and the surrounding region. Abductions take place in full daylight, often in the High Security zones protected by the government. These phenomena, however, are clearly far less dangerous than glimpses of intimacy between lovers in a couple serious works of cinema.

This oppressive and pernicious contradiction has historical precedents: the Nazis famously burned tens of thousands of books to protect German Culture; the State in Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil eliminated the intellectual class in the period of the Generals; similar slaughters occurred closer to home in China and Cambodia. As books are no longer the main means of circulating modern culture, the attack is now on cinema. We are forced, or at least inclined to conclude that the methods of fascism have not changed greatly since the last century.

July 2007


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