In Conversation with Anomaa Rajakaruna

As we move into a world strongly dominated by the digital influence and vastly experienced through virtual landscapes, we find most conventional practices changing and shifting, inventive methodologies and innovative ideas brought to the forefront. In the field of cinematography, for instance, the utilization of smartphone cameras as an alternative to the film camera. In an article by The Economist in conversation with award-winning directors Victoria Mapleback and Adam Gee, it is noted ‘There has been much hand-wringing in recent years about the film business’s need to be more diverse; though grants and initiatives have their place, smartphone cameras are a revolutionary way for aspiring filmmakers to break into the industry by creating a body of work on a budget.’ Perhaps the reason for the smartphone’s capacity to be a functional tool in filmmaking is its ability to be ubiquitous, convenient and inexpensive.

The pandemic has brought forth a stronger penchant for films and while circumstances may pose obstacles, filmmakers strive to create through ingenious ways facilitated by the smartphone. Thus, we find the creatives and artistes at Agenda 14, pioneered by Anomaa Rajakaruna, produce 'Goodnight COLOMBO!’ solely by capturing film on smartphone cameras. The Sri Lankan anthology comprises nine short films from recognized filmmakers; 'An Emergency' by Nipunika Fernando, 'The Washroom' by Krishan Kodithuwakku’, ‘The Delivery' by Lanka Bandaranayake, 'An Overdose' by Muvindu Binoy, 'A Wounded Artist' by Sumudu Athukorala, 'The Pet' by Fathima Shanaz, The Telephone Call' by Danushka Wijesooriya, 'An Avoidable Contact' by Yoshitha Perera, 'A Working Girl' by Rahul Ratnayake, while 'Another Lesson' by Dimon John and 'A Marriage Proposal' by Mathavan Maheswaran have been released as individual short films. In our conversation with the creative producer of 'Goodnight COLOMBO!’ we discuss the creative processes, the initiative and the themes that revolved around the making of the film.

What is the concept behind 'Goodnight COLOMBO!'?

‘Goodnight COLOMBO!’ is a Sri Lankan anthology film exploring the effects of COVID-19 on our lives and times. It’s a story told in chapters, based on experiences of the Sri Lankan youth during the first and second wave of the pandemic, shot using a camera phone with a minimalist approach to cast and crew and produced within the restrictions that prevail in the ‘new normal’. It’s a concept we pitched to the International Relief Fund of the German Federal Foreign Office through the Goethe-Institut, Sri Lanka which supported artistic expressions during the pandemic.

How was 'Goodnight COLOMBO!' initiated and what did the creative process entail?

This audio-visual project was initiated during a time of distress and uncertainty, based on ongoing discussions, held online, taking place amongst all the directors and technical crew of the different chapters of this anthology. The focus was to use available material, minimum resources, maintain social distancing and create work that can portray the many realities of the pandemic, its restrictions and its impact on life, as felt by the young filmmakers, through their life experiences and stories they came to see and hear, during the larger part of 2020. Shot from end September 2020, the project was executed using a single mobile phone to capture these stories. Most of the chapters were shot under available lighting conditions with a director, camera person and sound recordist as crew and with mostly nonactors enacting the scenes, with a few professional actors also took part in creating some chapters of this anthology. The entirety of the initial island-wide lockdown in Sri Lanka prevailed for 52 days until 11 May 2020 and our initial plan was to focus on the first lockdown and pre-production discussions were concluded in early September. But as filming was to commence in end September, the second wave of the pandemic outbreak emerged, bringing in the need to react to this new situation, which resulted in further changes to planned out storylines and finding ways to work with newly imposed restrictions. Having obtained approvals from the health authorities and Public Health Inspectors (PHIs) of the respective locations, the need to react to emerging new conditions was an ongoing and evolving consideration. Maximum achievement with minimum resources was our motto.

Why was the film chosen to be shot with a smartphone and what challenges had to be overcome, if any?

We were working with a limited budget and as the creative producer I had to guarantee all health guidelines were respected during the production process that means minimum no of crew. It was a challenge and a smartphone was the best choice at a challenging time. I wanted young directors to use an easily available device and try to push boundaries. It was a learning curve for all of them. Most of them used a mobile camera to shoot a short film for the first time. Some of them are first time filmmakers and they like the challenge too. As we were launching this initiative I invited some other young filmmakers who have worked with Agenda 14 before too. Some of them were reluctant because of the proposed device. They were not very happy to work with a mobile phone camera. But after the completion of the project and seeing the end product, some of them felt they should have joined in the first place.

What were some of the major themes explored through the film?

Our focus was on youth and young adults and our invitation to the filmmakers was to come with proposals on “Their everyday life during the pandemic”. We selected film proposals addressing the issues of women and reproductive health, LGBTIQ issues, working women in the informal sector, personal relationships, love, marriage, family conflicts as well as developed stories reported in news media. Agenda 14 was launched in 2011 and from its inception we encourage women and girls to use film as a medium of expression.  We always keep around 30% space for women in all our projects and sometimes we have exclusive programmes for women. Even this project brought together four females and seven males, two working in Tamil language and nine working in Sinhala. We encouraged filmmakers to work with female technicians too.

Anomaa Rajakaruna was recognized as ARTRA’s Iconic Women 2018 for her admirable leaps made as an artist, curator and founder of local and international film festivals dedicated to recording and promoting audio-visual history of significance. Last year, under the leadership of Anomaa, the Jaffna International Cinema Festival reached a milestone by completing five editions of the festival according to international standards. Jaffna International Cinema Festival is the only festival in Sri Lanka to reach this goal. In its sixth year in 2020, the International Federation of Film Societies will join the festival by extending the services of international critics jury appointed by the federation. Another fruition to acknowledge is Agenda 14 short film festival, completed 9 editions last year. In its ninth year, the festival introduced more awards to recognize young talent in the country. Now It has 11 award categories; Best Film, Jury Award, Human Rights Award, Most Gender Sensitive Film, Green Award, Best Animated Short Film, Most Promising Filmmaker (under 24 years), Best Performance, Best Screenplay, Best Editor and Best Cinematographer. In 2020, the Festival will present its 10th edition in December. Additionally, on behalf of the Government of France, the Ambassador of France to Sri Lanka, Mr. Eric Lavertu, conferred the title of ‘Officier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres’ (Officer in the Order of Arts and Literature) to Anomaa Rajakaruna. The Order of Arts and Literature is a French Order, established on the 2nd of May 1957 by the Minister of Culture to recognise eminent artists, writers, and scholars for their efforts in promoting the awareness and enrichment of France’s cultural heritage throughout the world. The decision to induct Rajakaruna in this order has been taken in recognition of her significant contribution in promoting French culture in Sri Lanka through the cinema industry. Anomaa Rajakaruna was previously conferred Chevalier dans l’ordre national du mérite by the Government of France in 2012.   

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2nd October, 2021 Visual Art | Digital Art