Rooting for harmony

DOCTOR ON FILMS: Somaratne Dissanayake  

FOR SOMARATNE DISSANAYAKE, the Sinhalese director, it was his second visit to Hyderabad, for the First Asian Children's Film Festival, held in the city from Noember14-21. His film Little Angel which was premiered here. His film Saroja was screened at the 12th International Children's Film Festival last year.

The child protagonist in Saroja, repeats a terrific performance as Satya in Little Angel. Hailing from a poor family in Kandy area of Sri LankaDissanayake completed his schooling in Colombo.

He obtained a degree in Diagnostic Medical Radiography from London University. While practising medicine in Colombo, he did theatre under stalwarts and managed to win awards for direction, script writing and lyrics. Besides, he scripted and directed a drama series for television, again winning laurels.

Migrating to Australia Dissanayake continued to practise medicine and pursued a PG Diploma in Professional Arts from the University of New South Wales. His first feature film, Saroja (1999), was a success and urged him to become a full time film-maker.

The film Little Angel, screened at the festival, comments on the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka through the tale of two children, Sampath - son of a rich Sinhalese father and Satya, daughter of the Tamil domestic help, Velu. In a conversation Dissanayake speaks about his film-making:

What inspired you to make films for/ with children-oriented subjects?

There is a scarcity of children's products in Sri Lanka - be it music, TV, theatre, literature - children are neglected. Business people have taken over art. . The ethnic problem had been haunting me since long. I thought of using the child as a medium to convey the message of racial harmony.

How closely were you yourself affected by this ethnic conflict?

I was not directly, personally affected as I was, for most part outside the country. But I was closely attached to society and my country. It hurt that religious leaders and politicians did not take sufficient steps to correct the problem - they were instead using the ethnic conflict to promote themselves. I have always felt that artistes have a bigger role to play - to be sympathetic to humanity, environment and society .

You have a formal degree in diagnostic radiography and are now known as a film-maker. How did/do you balance both ?

I can make money out of my professional qualifications if I want to.

I utilise my profession to look after my basic necessities and also my art. My parents came from a poor family and there was not enough money. Initially I did not wish to leave the country, but when I realised I had to make money there was no other option than to go out and earn. I worked in Australia but pursued arts at the same time. Art has been with me since I was young. Since I was good at science and mathematics at school my teachers and parents persuaded me to take up science. Had I moved to the field of arts from the beginning I would have produced more work by now. I went to drama school initially to become an actor. I did act in a few serials and films. But my drama teacher realised my penchant for writing. Whenever I ran out of money I became a doctor and then came back to my art! I spent six months in Australia and the rest in Sri Lanka (more in Colombo). Ever since I completed Saroja, I have not looked back. I am fully involved in film-making now.

Tell us more about the child artistes and your work with them.

There were no two opinions about recasting Nithyavani from Saroja again in Little Angel. But finding the boy was a challenge. It had to be a Sinhalese boy who knew Tamil as well. Tharaka Hettiaracchi is a real Sinhalese boy and all the characters in the film are real Tamil and Sinhalese people - that makes it more real. There was a Tamil consultant of mine to teach him.

What is your opinion about the festival here?

Of all the festivals of children's films I have attended I find this better. There is more space given to children to converse with film-makers. I came here with my own money (and will come here again) since I want to meet new people, new film-makers and interact.

What is your next venture?

An artiste should not stick to one single theme. Research is on for my next venture most probably on environmental disasters - again with children as an important medium. The idea is to make children see my films with adults and ask them why this is happening? And for adults to wonder, `indeed, why? In my films too I retain certain scenes of violence, which are needed - otherwise there will be no impact of what one is saying.

Any chances of a network of South Asian children's film-makers on one platform?

Certainly it should happen. A single country in Asia cannot stand by itself. In Sri Lanka's film history, only five children's films have been made so far - two are mine. There is a need for a Federation of Asian film-makers or a similar category, and then a move towards a larger federation combining all societies across continents. In Sri Lanka people are trying to start a Children's Film Society. The Government too has given verbal encouragement but nothing concrete has happened. The Government should not restrict itself to verbal support but also extend incentives. In this, Federations can play a major role.