Prasanna Vithanage is one of Sri Lanka's leading filmmakers. In Seattle for a retrospective of his work featuring three of his war films, Vithanage stopped by KCTS 9's studios for an interview about his films, Sri Lankan cinema and the country's more than 25 years of civil war.
“Any war dehumanizes people,” says Prasanna Vithanage, director of seven feature films and a documentary. Set against the backdrop of Sri Lanka’s 25-year-long civil war, the three films featured in his Seattle retrospective tell simple yet poignant stories examining the human situation in times of conflict.
Established in 1947, the Sri Lankan film industry is relatively small, releasing around 20 films per year. During the civil war between Tamil militants demanding an independent state and the Singhalese majority government, the film industry experienced severe censorship.
“The government didn’t want films to be made on war, [especially those that] showed what [was] happening in the country,” says Vithanage, who produced his three war films over a span of 17 years, both during and after the war. “The war is over now but we are still in the reconciliation phase.”
Reconciliation is one of the underlying themes of Vithanage’s most recent and beautifully composed feature film, With You, Without You, which has screened at film festivals around the world.
“I felt that [post-war] reconciliation was not happening fast enough and without it we could not survive [as a country],” says Vithanage. With You, Without You tells the story of a Tamil woman and a Singhalese man. Set in a small town right after the end of the civil war, it is a love story burdened by the physical and emotional devastation of war.
The other main theme of the film is masculinity. “I was approached by Rahul Roy, a documentary filmmaker from India, and he asked me to do a film on masculinity,” says Vithanage. He based his story on Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s short story A Gentle Creature, which Vithanage feels offers a “vivid picture of the effect of the masculinity and how, because of the masculinity, we could lose the most important things in life: the love, and life itself.”
One of the characteristics of Vithanage's films is the color choices, which, along with the evocative compositions, play as important a role in his films as the characters themselves. In With You, Without You, characters appear as if they are moving inside a beautifully composed painting with vivid colors in nearly each frame.
Vithanage gives due credit to his collaborator, the accomplished cinematographer M.D. Mahindapala. “I pass the script to him and then [our] process begins of how to build the world of these characters and what is the color of that world.”
“I love actors and I love good acting,” says Vithanage. “Without them, as directors, we cannot bring [out] the humanity of the characters.”
For Vithanage, casting the right actor is essential to getting a good performance. “Then, I work with them a lot before shooting, finding out what is the innermost truth of [their] characters.”
On screen, these truths are revealed often with little dialogue, mostly through characters’ interactions and facial expressions. “In real life, we may say a lot of things but our faces, our eyes, will not lie, so the filmmakers job is to capture that,” says Vithanage.
“With the digital revolution, in Sri Lanka young filmmakers are making films using smaller cameras and with little budgets or no budgets,” says Vithanage. He sees it as a good sign for the future of Sri Lankan films, which are being made not only within the country but also by Sri Lankans living abroad. “In the future, moviegoers will experience these films by young filmmakers — that’s my hope for Sri Lankan cinema,” he says.
Vithanage's retrospective in Seattle was presented by Tasveer as part of the Seattle South Asian Film Festival.
@Lailakaz — Laila Kazmi is an award-winning senior producer and writer at KCTS 9. Her first love is discovering and telling stories of diverse people, places, and history. She has lived in Karachi, Bahrain, Chicago, and Seattle. Laila is the series producer for Borders & Heritage, which features stories of immigrant and refugee experience in the Pacific Northwest and for Reel NW, featuring independent films from and about the Pacific Northwest. She also produces stories for IN Close and produced for PIE. Laila's video stories have appeared on KCTS 9, PBS NewsHour Art Beat, World Channel at WGBH, and KPBS. Her articles have been published in PBS NewsHour Art Beat, The Seattle Times, Seattle PI, COLORLINES, and Pakistan's daily Dawn.More stories by Laila Kazmi