FILM REVIEW - BURNING BIRDS
evena Vihangun” (Burning Birds) is Sanjeewa Pushpakumara’s first feature film and has won several international awards. The director says that the story is based on real-life incidents in the Trincomalee district where he grew up. In reviewing this film, however, we must go beyond the analysis of a film to a soul-searching discussion about the nature of Sri Lankan society and culture, which are the direct sources of themes for artistes, be they filmmakers, writers, dramatists, painters or other.
The story is the tragedy of one very poor village woman. It can be seen as a tragedy of our country because everything that happens to this woman is the direct result of poverty and political violence, which claims the life of her husband. It is related too, to the failure of our governments to uplift the lot of the poor, especially the rural poor, no matter what statistics say about national growth or median incomes.
Even beggary can thrive only in cities. A village can’t sustain beggary. It has little to offer to as paid work. Anoma Janadari plays a woman who struggles to feed a family of ten (eight children and her mother in law) after her husband, the village fish vendor, is abducted and killed by a death squad as a JVP suspect. Even if it was possible to beg, she is too proud to do that and prefers to do back-breaking work in a stone quarry. But she is forced to work in a slaughterhouse when the quarry closes down after an accident.
From that point, the story of sexual exploitation is added to the familiar tale of economic misery, as she undergoes horror after horror – lured into prostitution, gang-raped, arrested and jailed, while her children are expelled from their school and the family forced to leave the village.
Sexual exploitation of women is a recurring theme in our cinema and in fiction. It is there, in various guises, from Leonard Woolf’s Village in the Jungle to Dharmasiri Bandaranaike’s film adaptation of Simon Navagattegama’s novel Suddilage Kathawa.
"If we consider the fiction first, I can’t think any other literature which has produced works with this particular theme (sexual exploitation of poverty-stricken women) with such consistency over such a long time span"
If we take the time frame, Village in the Jungle was first published in 1913, during the colonial era. The story is a classic study of an individual (Silindu) against an unjust system, but Woolf correctly identified the plight of attractive, poverty-stricken village women who become targets of sexual desire by men in positions of power and wealth. Lester’s film version was screened in 1980.
Navagattegama’s novel was set in the 1950s, after independence but within a structure which is still colonial and feudal in nature, with elements of nascent capitalism. Dharmasiri’s film version of this story was released in 1984 when free-market capitalism was only five years old in the country but sweeping ahead like a juggernaut made of rupees and cents.
If we now take Devena Vihangun released this year, this is a time span of 105 years (from 1913-2018). If we consider the fiction first, I can’t think any other literature which has produced works with this particular theme (sexual exploitation of poverty-stricken women) with such consistency over such a long time span.
I am not an authority on world literature (including Latin American, African, and the rest of Asia) and I made the above statement to the best of my knowledge. This does not claim to be a comprehensive survey but I’d like to make a general outline based on my knowledge. The sexual exploitation/violence theme no longer has the same currency in Western literature, though it occurs in some Latin American fiction, for example in the work of Isabel Allende. I am referring to quality fiction, not pulp focused on sex crime and revenge themes.
Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles,the story of an attractive but poor village girl cynically seduced and sexually abused by her rich, playboy cousin was first published in 1891 (Roman Polanski’s film version came in 1980) and was attacked by prurient Victorian critics. Already by the 1920s, however, D. H. Lawrence was exploring the clash of sexuality and ego between men and women on more or less equal terms. In his Lady Chatterley’s lover (1928), the roles are reversed. The woman is rich and powerful, the man a servant in her husband’s estate. But the theme is mutual sexual attraction and unequal love, not sexual exploitation or abuse.
In American literature, there are examples such as short story writer Flannery O’ Conner who provide an exception to the rule. Sexual abuse of female slaves was common during the slavery years, but Afro American writers have tackled this theme only randomly.
19th Century speaker and reformer Harriet Jacob wrote of her sexual relationships with a white man as a black slave in her autobiography, but hers’ is not a tale of abuse. In Richard Wright’s novel, The Native Son a black youth kills a white woman by mistake. But it’s not a sexual crime. Among modern writers, postmodernist Gayl Jones wrote about sexual abuse of black women by a Brazilian plantation owner.
Director Sanjeewa Pushpakumara (left) at the location
William Faulkner, who was white, explored racial bias and conflict in the ‘deep south’ in some of his fiction. In Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls,Maria is raped by the Falangists, but the reasons are political and the story happens in Spain during a civil war. Sexual violence and kidnapping occur in American thrillers (such as No Orchids for Miss Blandish by James Hadley Chase) but that genre is outside this survey.
Today, the US ranks first among Western countries most dangerous to women, but American literature (and the movie industry) has largely bypassed this issue. Again, I am talking about the serious stuff. Django Unchained, Quentino Tarantino’s 2012 movie, is one exception but the movie industry has a different take regarding this issue.
In Russian classical literature, we hardly find any serious exploring of this bleak theme. In a short story by Alexander Pushkin, a peasant watches helplessly as his beautiful daughter is kidnapped by a rich nobleman. After many years, he traces her to the nobleman’s St. Petersburg home. Peeping through a window one night, he discovers that she is now married to the nobleman and is living happily, and decides to return home quietly (a happy ending). The only modern Russian writer who made sexual abuse a key element of a major novel is Boris Pasternak – in Dr. Zhivago,when the ruthless opportunist Komarovsky rapes Lara, and tells her cynically: “Don’t call this rape, my dear. That would only flatter us both.”
"The problem isn’t endemic, but it’s durable. Both Western Europe and North America began moving away in the 19th century from mass level poverty thanks to industrialization (and colonialism, in the case of Europe)"
That doesn’t mean that sexual abuse and exploitation of poor women didn’t exist in pre-industrial England or pre-revolutionary Russia (Dr. Zhivago was first published in 1957, and the story is set just before the revolution). But writers (and filmmakers) somehow didn’t feel the need to bring up the subject so much, and the reasons for that merit a separate discussion. In the West, at any rate, some publishers now refuse to look at manuscripts which include rape.
The point here is our writers and filmmakers have treated sexual abuse of women (or women becoming victims of male lust) as a serious theme from 1913 to 2018. Anyone analyzing these and other works (the theme of kidnap and/or sexual abuse and violence is there in countless Sinhala commercial films, from Handapana to Hiawatha Neththo and Rajagedara Paraviyo) is bound to conclude that this particular pathology is endemic to Lankan culture. One can argue that only three works of artistic quality are cited, but the important thing is not the numbers but the time frame – it’s a storyline that has been sustained for more than a century.
The problem isn’t endemic, but it’s durable. Both Western Europe and North America began moving away in the 19th century from mass level poverty thanks to industrialization (and colonialism, in the case of Europe). That modern Western literature and film-making have moved away from this theme doesn’t mean that sexual exploitation doesn’t exist in Western Europe or the United States. As proof, you only have to look at the post Harvey Weinberg scenario in the US and the luring of women from Africa,Asia and the former Soviet bloc into Western Europe as sex workers or slaves. The root cause of the latter case, in any case, is poverty, and that is the reason why what Woolf saw in Beddegama is still valid in 2018 in the nameless eastern district village that filmmaker Sanjeewa Pushpakumara focuses on. Despite all the bright statistics, many people are still desperately poor.
That is our endemic problem. Add to this the periodic political instability, and we have a recipe for personal tragedy. President Maithripala Sirisena was the chief guest at the film’s premiere at the Regal. His government, just like our previous governments, has failed to uplift the masses above poverty. But, if he has any conscience, he should consider taking action at least on the following areas.
"The story is the tragedy of one very poor village woman. It can be seen as a tragedy of our country because everything that happens to this woman is the direct result of poverty and political violence, which claims the life of her husband"
Dismantle the shadowy paramilitary apparatus responsible for political kidnappings and death squad murders. It still exists, and his government has done nothing about it.
Create a stable climate for investment and development which will eliminate the kind of dire rural poverty reflected in this film. It’s nothing new. If we set Woolf’s Beddegama in a contemporary setting,Silindu and his daughters might have a cheap Chinese TV or DVD player, but they’d still be very poor.
Moderate his hardline views on laws related to sexuality, and sex-related activities. He should recognize the plight of Sri Lankan sex workers and push for legislation that gives them a measure of legal protection.
Director Sanjeewa Pushpakumara says the film is partly autobiographical. He comes from a family of eight children. But the story is a blend of fact and fiction. The central characters – the school principal who cynically betrays the fish vendor, the slaughterhouse owner, the widowed young woman who finally becomes a sex worker to feed her children – all these are characters who sound authentic and familiar.
Woolf’s characters too, maybe based on real life, as Village In the Jungle has been called a folkloric novel. Simon’s Suddiis a different kind of woman than Sanjeewa Pushkumara’s cinematic character who struggles to remain faithful to the memory of her late husband. Suddi is a more full-blooded character who may actually enjoy sex, which isn’t an unpardonable sin. Transported in time to the eastern province village of Devena Vihangun, she would have consented to the slaughterhouse owner’s advances in the interests of her family. This is neither criticism nor praise, simply a comparison of personality, psychology and body chemistry. I just want to point out that in our writing the sexuality of the women characters has been largely overlooked, overshadowed by themes of exploitation and violence.
But Suddi’s tragedy too, is finally rooted in her poverty. That really is the bottom line in all three tragedies, and we have been socially, economically and artistically stuck in this groove from 1913-2018 is damning evidence of the failure of our politics to make the country prosperous.
The director manages to extract excellent performances from his cast, including Anoma Janadari as the tragic mother of eight, Samanalee Fonseka as hier elder daughter and Mahendra Perera as the slaughterhouse owner. The sparse soundtrack reflects the bleakness and harshness of these lives, and Nilendra Deshapriya’s dark palette never releases us from the film’s ominous mood.
The film is a French-Dutch-Qatar-Sri Lankan co-production. The original script was written by the filmmaker, but was further developed with Jacques Acqoti at the Sam Spiegel International Script Lab in Israel.