Culture Or Fishing
In Troubled Waters?
By Prasanna Ratnayake
06 July, 2007
“What a Life, What
a Time, What a Country!”
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
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
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
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.
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