By David Robson

Lionel Wendt Memorial Fund Collection, Colombo

Late in 1933, a young British film director called Basil Wright arrived in Colombo with his cameraman John Taylor in tow. He was employed by the Empire Marketing Board Film Unit and had been commissioned to make a set of four short ‘educational’ films for the Ceylon Tea Propaganda Board. Only twenty-six at the time and three years out of university, Wright was a protégé of John Grierson who was head of the Film Unit and a leading exponent of the new genre of documentary film-making. 

Reminiscing some fifty years later, Wright recalled how he had been been hoping to enlist the help of a local with a ‘non-colonial mentality’ and had been given an introduction to Lionel Wendt. When they met in Colombo’s Grand Oriental Hotel, after some persuading, Wendt agreed to act as Wright’s location assistant and subsequently accompanied him for much of the eight-week shoot, playing a vital role in the making of the film. 

Wendt was seven years older than Wright. A qualified lawyer and talented musician, he was a leading Colombo intellectual. Three years earlier he had finished building a house for himself in Colombo’s Cinnamon Gardens and had christened it ‘Alborada’ or ‘Daybreak’. He wanted it to become a meeting place for artists and musicians 'wherein all honest endeavour in the service of beauty might flourish.’ Soon after moving in, he acquired a cheap camera and started taking photographs, revisiting a long-abandoned childhood hobby. His friend, the artist George Keyt, was working at the time in a photographic studio in Kandy and Wendt sent him his negatives to be developed. What started almost as a diversion quickly grew to be a major preoccupation. 

He continued to play the piano, write newspaper articles and organise exhibitions, but his time was increasingly taken up with his new hobby. Wendt’s father had been keen amateur photographer and was a co-founder of the Amateur Photographic Society of Ceylon. He had presented his son with his first camera and took him regularly to visit the professional studio of A.W. Andree. The young Lionel’s skill as a photographer can be seen in one surviving photograph from that period: a portrait of George Keyt that he took when he was seventeen. However, he seems to have stopped taking photographs when he moved to London to study Law and Music in 1919, though it was in London that his interest in the visual arts was aroused.

As with everything else that he did, after 1931 Wendt threw himself wholeheartedly into his photography. He equipped himself first with a small Rolleiflex camera and then with a Leica. Within a couple of years, he had established a studio and darkroom in his new home. He bought the latest equipment, he subscribed to a range of journals, both technical and creative and sought the advice of professional photographers in Colombo.   

Wendt probably agreed to help Wright because he hoped to learn something from him about film-making. However, at the outset, Wright probably didn’t appreciate quite whom he was dealing with: as well as being a talented musician and arts impresario, Wendt was already well on the way to becoming a world-class photographer and he had deep knowledge of the island and its people. He became much more than Wright’s local guide and acted as his collaborator and adviser during the three months of shooting. Wendt was responsible for selecting the film locations and helped to set up shoots with local people. He must also have influenced Wright’s evolving ideas and may well have been instrumental in persuading him to go beyond his brief and shoot extra material that could be used to create a lyrical portrait of the island and its people. 

Jon Hoare, Wright’s biographer, has said that ‘Wright never gave much away about the location shooting in Ceylon…. he deliberately cultivated an air of mystery about his experiences (there).’ A photograph from early 1934, shows Wright behind a table flanked by two cameras and a line of local assistants, while Wendt sits on the ground in front of the table looking as if he is running the show.

During his sojourn in Ceylon, Wright produced far more footage than was needed for four single-reel educational films and he persuaded Wendt to join him in London to help edit the surplus film into what would become ‘The Song of Ceylon’. 

Back in London, Wright was keen to start work on the bigger film, but his boss John Grierson reminded him of his obligation to complete the educational films. These were produced in tandem with ‘The Song of Ceylon’ and had the titles ‘Monsoon Island’ (13 mins.), ‘Negombo Coast’ (9 mins.), ‘Dance of the Harvest’ (11 mins.), and ‘Villages of Lanka’ (10 mins.). They were distributed by the Empire Film Library to schools around Britain, though there is no evidence to suggest that they were ever shown in Ceylon. 

The editing of ‘The Song of Ceylon’ took place in the GPO Film Unit studios in London. Wright had to create a new soundtrack from scratch and Wendt persuaded two Sinhalese musicians, Ukkava and Gunaya, to join them from Ceylon. The musical score was conceived by a young composer called Walter Leigh who combined modern percussion and woodwind sound effects with traditional Ceylonese music, incorporating the drumming, flute playing and singing of Ukkava and Gunaya. The two Sinhalese also provided authentic voice-overs and even managed to coach a local choir to sing in Sinhalese. 

Wendt, the musician, may well have been responsible for the film’s quartet structure, and it seems likely that it was he who suggested using the texts of Robert Knox’s ‘Historic Relation of Ceylon’ for part of the commentary. Wright would later claim that he had chanced upon Knox’s book in a Bloomsbury bookshop, though Jon Hoare admits that this could have been a ‘deliberate bit of mythologising on Wright’s part’ to help obscure the full extent of Wendt’s input. Certainly, the voice of the narrator is Wendt’s. 

The film lasts a total of thirty-eight minutes and is divided like a piece of music into four ‘movements’: ‘The Buddha’, ‘The Virgin Island’, ‘Voices of Commerce’ and ‘The Apparel of God’. A series of seemingly disconnected episodes are woven together into a beautiful black and white portrait of Ceylon. In the first movement, Buddhism emerges out of the darkness of a primordial jungle inhabited by devil dancers and the camera follows a line of pilgrims as they ascend Sri Pada and finally tracks the shadow of the peak as the sun rises. The second movement offers a panorama of everyday life - men drawing water from a well, villagers harvesting rice, a monk with his begging bowl, a fisherman casting his nets in a lagoon, a potter at work, a family making a house of wattle and daub – and ends with a long sequence shot in a village dance school. The third movement contrasts images of coconut farmers and tea-pickers toiling for the ‘Plantation Raj’ with a soundtrack that mixes a monotonous recitation of market statistics and business communications with the raucous din of railway engines, factory machines and steamships. The fourth movement returns to Buddhism with a slightly contrived sequence showing a ‘pingo man’ who lays down his panier and makes an offering at the Gal Vihare in Polonnaruwa. It ends with an energetic performance by a troupe of Kandyan dancers before disappearing back into the jungle. 

The pictorial quality of the film bears a strong resemblance to Wendt’s photographic style, as can be seen by comparing stills from the film with his later published photographs – for example the images of men husking coconuts. This suggest that he and Wright engaged in a two-way exchange of ideas. The choice of subject matter also reflects Wendt’s interests, and he was already connected with a number of places that were featured in the film such as, for example, the dancers’ village of Amunugama. However, while the film might be interpreted as offering covert support for the idea of independence - which in fact lay only fourteen years away into the future – it omits any references to the harsh realities of life under the colonial yoke. The tea-pickers are cheerful, the rice harvesters seem happy, the coconut workers present a glistening image of physical fitness. 

‘The Song of Ceylon’ is a very special film which offers a unique view of the island at the end of the colonial period. It paints a picture of a simple way of life permeated by the spiritual calm of Buddhism but threatened by colonialism and commercial exploitation. This contradiction is never made explicit, though it is implicit in the tension that exists between the images and the sometimes startling sound-track. Wright himself observed that "(Walter Leigh) used all available sounds – natural effects, dialogue, songs, constructed sounds" – as part of a carefully worked out score. Moreover, the track had a life of its own; and when it was allied to the picture it was clear that Leigh had achieved a new and important synthesis. The picture said one thing; the track said something else. Together the two produced a third quality.

Wright came from a wealthy background with a public school and Oxbridge education and may have displayed, perhaps unconsciously, some of the prevailing paternalistic colonial attitudes of his class. However, he remained a lifelong pacifist and his liberal views led him to question some of the evils of the colonial system that, as an employee of the Empire Marketing Board, he was being paid to eulogise. 

Lionel Wendt, Wright’s ‘local with a non-colonial mentality’ was in fact a ‘burgher’ of mixed Ceylonese and Dutch descent – one of the ‘people-in-between’. But he identified himself as Ceylonese and, uncommonly for someone of his background, spoke fluent Sinhalese. He was one of a group of artists and writers who, in anticipation of the end of colonial rule, were endeavouring to develop new art-forms that would somehow embrace Ceylon’s pre-colonial past. Just as Wright was subverting the brief of the Ceylon Tea Propaganda Board, so Wendt was perhaps nudging Wright towards a Ceylonese point of view. This could perhaps explain the mixed messaging of the film.  

‘The Song of Ceylon’ was hailed as a masterpiece when it was premiered in December 1934 and, in the following year, it received first prize for Documentary at the Brussels International Film Festival, helping to establish Wright’s reputation as an avant garde director. Poised at the threshold of his career, he was probably keen to garner as much kudos as he could from the film, which may explain why he failed to acknowledge Wendt’s role as his collaborator and only credited him as the film’s narrator. He also failed to credit the two musicians who had travelled a quarter of the way around the world to help with the film’s soundtrack. These omissions on the part of Wright are consistent with a colonialist tendency to disregard the contribution of locals.

In a 1949 interview with two Ceylonese students Wright finally admitted, somewhat begrudgingly, that: “Without (Wendt) I don't think 'The Song of Ceylon' could have been what it is. For here was a man who knew Ceylon as few men did, and he was in touch with the avant-garde cinema of those days and he knew what the documentary  people were doing. As a matter of fact, the only two people I met in Ceylon who knew anything about film then were Wendt and the artist George Keyt.” And added: “I think Wendt was one of the greatest still photographers that ever lived - I should place him among the six best I've come across.” 

And in 1987, at the age of 81, he recalled his first meeting with Wendt when: “to begin with he was bristling with suspicion but after a long talk he decided that we were OK. He was of course invaluable throughout, and guided us splendidly through the making of the film."

The film came to be regarded as one of the most important British documentaries of the 1930s, though Wendt’s involvement in its production has been completely overlooked by critics. The writer Graham Greene penned a laudatory review in the Spectator in 1935. His praise for the perfect construction, the perfect use of montage and the use of visual metaphors was directed at ‘Mr. Wright’ and he made no mention of Lionel Wendt. 

While nobody would seek to question Wright’s authorship of the film, his failure to acknowledge the full extent of Lionel Wendt’s collaboration deserves to be challenged, as does the blinkered attitude of film historians. Why? Not only because Wendt is morally entitled to be credited, even posthumously, for his contribution, but also because the involvement of a Ceylonese hand, eye and brain in both the shooting and the editing of the film is a matter of great historical significance. 

Wendt’s exclusion from the film’s historiography is an example of the systemic marginalisation of the ‘other’: how could a mere ‘native’ be regarded as more than just an onlooker?  But we might also ask how Basil Wright, a young and relatively inexperienced film-maker and stranger to Ceylon, could have created such a film without the help of a Lionel Wendt!   

David Robson 


18th February, 2021 Visual Art | Paintings