Last week I had the good fortune of attending the South Asian Film Festival (SAAF) here in Vancouver, Canada. The festival showcased artistic films from numerous south asian countries such as India, Bhutan, Nepal and even Sri Lanka. I’ve always enjoyed watching films from different parts of the world and evaluating them using my very modest and highly limited skill set. However, I had never seen a full length Sri Lankan film before and was very excited by the prospect of breaking this boundary.
The film was titled “Sam’s Story” and this was its world premiere, not only that but it was also the director’s first full length film, a man by the name of Priyankara Vittanachichi. I considered the moment highly auspicious because I would be among the first members of the public anywhere in the world to watch the film. As I sat there waiting for the film to begin a horrible truth dawned on me. I was the only one in the cinema! I looked around at the empty seats and I had a real mix of emotions. Firstly, it felt nice to be the only one in the cinema, I could scream or laugh as loudly as I wanted and didn’t have to worry about disturbing anyone. Yet the second and more powerful emotion I felt was sadness, here was a film somebody had spent so much time working on and nobody except me had show up to watch it. You would expect that with such few opportunities to watch Sri Lankan movies on the big screen here in Canada that at least a few Sri Lankans would have shown up. It really was a shame because as I soon discovered they missed out on a wonderful film. The clip below is meant to be a trailer.
The story is about the life of Siriratne or Sam as he was named by a western couple that had employed him as a domestic. What makes Sam special is that he is handicapped and the story explores how Sri Lankan society treats him. Throughout his life he encounters many people, some who take advantage of him in the worst possible ways and others who show him kindness.
In understanding this film it is important to recognise two different kinds of films, the artistic and the popular variety. Artistic films are those that are shown at film festivals and are centred around neo-realism, in which they try to showcase the human condition as real as possible. Example’s of these are Deepa Mehta’s trilogy of Fire, Earth and Water. They are never seen by mainstream audiences while popular films are those that you see at theaters and compromise 95% or more of total film production. They are filled with song and dance and over the top action as well as over dramatized situations. I’m sure you can come up with a plethora of movies that fit these characteristics.
Sam’s story is an artistic one in every sense of the word. It explores the social treatment of handicapped people in Sri Lanka through the interaction Sam has with other characters. Also it explores the political frustrations of people living in a country divided by war and the tensions between the Tamil and Sinhalese ethnicities. It also explores the structure of the family and their devotion to each other. These all serve to imprint upon us the lives of average Sri Lankans, their hopes, dreams, desires and fears.
I wouldn’t want to go into too much detail about the movie but there was one realization that came out of it that really hit home. I don’t consider myself truly Sinhalese because I’ve been raised abroad so the difference between Sinhalese and Tamil is really not something that influences me as much as it would others, in fact I’m barely Sri Lankan. So the movie really spoke to me because it showed how the violence in Sri Lanka had affected both ethnicities and was not concentrated against either of them. During the film we learn that everyone both Tamil and Sinhalese have lost loved one’s due to the conflict and that the people the conflict affects the most are the poor who have everything to lose and barely anything to gain from it.
Sam’s Story is a wonderful tale of human life and the struggle of every day life. I doubt many of you will be able to see it but if you ever get the chance to then go for it, you won’t be disappointed.