Director who raised profile of Sri Lankan cinema mourned

The devout Catholic 'Father of Sinhala Cinema' brought nation's moving pictures to the attention of the world
Director who raised profile of Sri Lankan cinema mourned

Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena visits the residence of internationally recognized film director Dr. Lester James Peiris on the occasion of his 99th birthday on April 5 in Colombo. Peiris passed away three weeks later. (Photo supplied)

ucanews.com reporter, Colombo
Sri Lanka
May 2, 2018
Sri Lankans are mourning the death of a Catholic film director, producer and screenwriter who carved a pioneering role in bringing worldwide recognition to Sinhala cinema.

Dr. Lester James Peiris passed away on April 29 at a private hospital in Colombo at the age of 99.

He was involved in 28 films, including shorts and documentaries, but he made a name for himself by directing Rekava and Gamperaliya in the 1950s and 1960s.

Gamperaliya (Changes in the Village) was the first Sinhala film recorded with no songs and like Rekava (Line of Destiny) was shot outside the studio, marking a break from the first decade of the movement when its films were shot in India and included shoddy remakes of Indian hits.

Gamperaliya (1963) was considered a groundbreaking achievement not only for eschewing the studio system but for the gall with which Peiris approached the project — shooting it using one lamp and hand-held lights.

It is now hailed as a masterpiece. A digitally restored version of the movie was honored with a featured screening at Cannes in 2008, the fifth of Peiris' films to be screened at the world's most prestigious film festival.

"This is a fine opportunity and it gives an impression that miracles still do happen," said the movie's editor, Sumithra Peries — also the director's wife. 

Rekava (1956) was nominated for the Palme D'Or at Cannes for its cultural originality and the way in which it used family tensions to symbolize broader social issues.

Peiris became a filmmaker in 1949, two years after Sinhala cinema broke onto the scene with Kadawunu Poronduwa, the first movie ever made in the Sinhala language. 

Irangani Serasinghe, a hugely popular movie actress in Sri Lanka who appeared in more than five of Peiris' films, described him as a mentor who helped shaped the evolution of Sinhala cinema.

"Prior to his producing Rekava, Sri Lankan cameras had never ventured outside of the studio," the 91-year-old former stage actress said.

"Before Peiris came along, the Sinhala film industry was heavily influenced by, and copied the acting seen in the south Indian film industry."

Peiris wrote, directed and produced the movie, which focuses on the mystical beliefs of villagers and village life. It is considered one of the first movies from Sri Lanka free of Indian influence.

He is also known for Nidanaya (Treasure) and Golu Hadawatha (Silence of the Heart).

"He wanted to show the natural beauty of the artist without any makeup, and he would always encourage us to act in a natural way," said Serasinghe.

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"He puts real life on the screen. His stories deal with religion, the caste system, cultural values and rural life in Sri Lanka," she added.

Peiris won a number of domestic and international accolades.

He picked up the Golden Peacock award at the New Delhi Film Festival for Gamperaliya and in 2007 pocketed the coveted Sri Lankabhimanya, Sri Lanka's highest award for a civilian.

Father Lal Pushpadewa Fernando, an oblate priest and Sri Lanka's national director of social communication, recalled how Peiris also brought to the nation's fledgling cinema industry the support of the Church.

"In 1972, Sri Lanka's Catholic church invited a number of artists to an event marking the launch of the local chapters of SIGNIS and OCIC," said Father Fernando, who also serves as the president of SIGNIS Sri Lanka.

"Since that time he remained very active in supporting all three organizations," he added.

SIGNIS is a Catholic lay movement that recognizes the outstanding achievements of communication media professionals in the film industry while OCIC is the acronym used by the International Catholic Organization for Cinema and Audiovisual.

Father Fernando said Peiris deserves praise for bringing Sri Lanka's culture, language and beauty to an international audience.

"We have suffered a great loss with his passing and no one will ever fill his shoes," he said.

Peiris won several SIGNIS and OCIC awards and was bestowed with a lifetime achievement award for his contributions to the industry in 2017.

His wife Sumithra Peiris, also a film director and producer, continues to work with the SIGNIS jury.

The veteran film-maker's funeral was held on May 2 with full state honors. The government also declared the day as a Day of National Mourning as a sign of respect for Peries.

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