The former president has fled, the new one is equally unpopular and a state of emergency is in place as Sri Lanka faces the worst economic crisis in its history.
The island nation known as the pearl of the Indian Ocean – where films like ‘Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom’, ‘Tarzan the Ape Man’ and ‘The Bridge Over the River Kwai’ have been filmed on location – has been through some extraordinary times in recent weeks.
Over the past year, government economic mismanagement has precipitated a monetary and agricultural crisis that has resulted in shortages of medicine, fuel and basic foodstuffs amid a 50% rise in inflation. . The country declared bankruptcy earlier this month. Although the impact on local film and television production is not high on the priority list amid an impending famine, Sri Lankan industry insiders say it will take years for the creative sector to recover. to re-establish.
“It is impossible to even imagine a timetable for the country to return to normal – or the survival of the film and television industry during this time. Economists predict it will take at least three to four years before the country can breathe easy. No one can fathom how well the industry will survive until that time,” says Kalpana Ariyawansa, co-director of “Dirty, Yellow, Darkness” (2015).
For now, inflation and the depreciation of the Sri Lankan rupee have increased production costs tenfold.
Costs for catering, accommodation and equipment rental have risen dramatically since the pre-pandemic days, and with a shortage of foreign exchange, imports have been limited to essential items. Meanwhile, a massive shortage of fuel, cooking gas and prolonged power outages have also hit the industry hard.
The precarious economic situation prompted mass protests against the government which ultimately led to the overthrow of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa last week. He fled to the Maldives and then to Singapore. On Wednesday, Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe – whose house was burned down by protesters just weeks ago – was elected president. Observers say the election of Wickremesinghe, who has served as the country’s six-time prime minister, could lead to further protests as he is seen as close to the Rajapaksa family, whom the general public holds entirely responsible for the current woes in the country. Sri Lanka.
The nation is not new to crisis as it was ravaged by a civil war from 1983 to 2009. During this period the film industry declined as people stayed away from cinemas and the TV audience was growing. There was something of a revival at the end of the war, with a new generation of internationally acclaimed filmmakers including Vimukthi Jayasundara, whose ‘The Forsaken Land’ (2005) won the Camera d’Or at Cannes. After the war film production improved slightly with 30-40 films being produced per year, but with the double hit of COVID-19 and the economic crisis this slowed down to around 10.
“The industry was just surviving: it was hanging by a thread,” says Jayasundara, who adds that the sector has also suffered from insufficient investment in digital infrastructure. “The National Film Corporation has a monopoly on film distribution. It has not been privatized, like the other sectors of the country.
The Sri Lankan film industry has not had a national policy since 1956, when cinema dictated the entertainment market, adds the director. The popularization of television from the 1980s, he argues, saw the “gradual downfall of the motion picture industry”.
“Although Sri Lanka has an open economy, our cinema is ‘closed’ due to outdated policies and lack of attractions for new investment: Sri Lanka has no special treaty or co-production agreements with other countries,” adds Jayasundara.
Ariyawansa agrees that Sri Lankan cinema has been in steady decline for over 20 years, and with ever-decreasing theater numbers, the return on investment for big-budget films is long. As a result, mini- and micro-budget films with no real production value have multiplied and are released by the dozens, without making a significant run at the box office.
Meanwhile, international films such as Tamil-language titles from neighboring India and Hollywood blockbusters have started enjoying better theatrical releases than local releases, despite being released in a limited number of theatres, Ariyawansa adds. .
“Although the pandemic has shaken the industry considerably, it is fair to say that it did not exceed expectations before,” says Ariyawansa.
Despite the biting local industry, top international productions have continued to use Sri Lanka as a filming location. Recent projects include Michael Winterbottom’s ‘Greed’, Deepa Mehta’s ‘Funny Boy’, the Tiger Aspect/ITV series ‘The Good Karma Hospital’ and the Indian drama ‘800’, a biopic of the Sri Lankan cricketer. Muthiah Muralidaran. However, international productions are unlikely to return soon and local productions have also stalled.
Actor Nimmi Harasgama, who is also a writer and producer, has starred in ‘The Good Karma Hospital’ and ‘Funny Boy’, and won awards for Prasanna Vithanage’s ‘Flowers in the Sky’ and ‘August Sun’. She has not worked in Sri Lanka this year.
“A number of productions have been canceled, halted or are waiting to see how the situation develops before deciding to film here,” Harasgama said. Its projects in Sri Lanka focus on raising awareness of the current situation. She is also raising funds for a short film she wrote, while rehearsing a monologue that will be streamed online.
Following the box office success of her latest film “Little Miss Puppet”, Ariyawansa was due to start her new film in September but has now dropped the project. Similarly, Jayasundara was due to begin filming his Sri Lanka-France co-production “Turtle’s Gaze on Spying Stars” in August but has postponed the film indefinitely. Meanwhile, ‘Funny Boy’ frontman Rehan Mudannayake has also struggled with troubled Sri Lankan projects.
“As an actor, many Sri Lankan films I’ve been cast in have been dropped with no start date in sight,” he says. “The rest of my acting and directing work has been based in the UK and unaffected by the crisis.”
Mudannayake wrote and directed the British-Sri Lankan short film “So Long, Farewell”, which provides insight into the experience of the South Asian diaspora.
While there was once hope for the industry emerging from the pandemic, the scale of the economic crisis casts doubt on a recovery anytime soon.
“We had many discussions in the hope of reviving the film industry,” says Jayasundara, “but now, in the current circumstances, we find the implementation of these solutions quite problematic because we do not know if these plans are practically achievable.
An almost absent film industry against a background of political and economic bankruptcy makes it “difficult to use the term ‘normal’”, adds the director, “because we no longer know when things will return to ‘normal’. Right now, our “new normal” is “uncertainty”, because at this point no one knows whether new investments are possible or not. »
While a revamped streaming player might once have served as a pathway to cinema even under difficult conditions, it’s unclear where financial support for such ventures will come from. “Who’s going to do it? Who’s going to take it? There’s no indication,” says Raj Kajendra, who produced the Sri Lankan Tamil-language film “Mann”.
“The understanding is that the current constitution has failed the people,” Harasgama says.
“Once a new constitution is in place, it would be a good time to also reassess the unrealized potential that exists in the film and television industry,” adds Harasgama. “Tax incentives and tax breaks in line with those offered by other countries would help filmmakers and production companies present international productions. The film and television industry is a valuable and viable economic asset that only needs a little help to get off the ground.
Mudannayake also suggests funding programs for newbie directors, which would definitely be a game-changer for the industry.
“Attracting more international productions is also essential, but for that to succeed we need to cut red tape,” says the actor-director. “A system of tax relief, whereby Sri Lanka offers a percentage return on the film being made, regardless of the profits, is essential.”
Ariyawansa adds, “History clearly shows that although humans have never been good at prevention, they have always been good at adaptation. This is what keeps me optimistic despite all that has already happened and will happen, as the film and television industry will also adapt to whatever the future may bring and find a way to reprise.