Catholic-run SIGNIS organized a short film festival in Colombo under the banner 'Director Tomorrow' in parallel with the 41st SIGNIS Awards 2018 featuring some 100 artists. Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, bishops, priests and nuns attended the awards ceremony on Aug. 25 at the Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall (BMICH) in the capital. (ucanews.com photo)
A Catholic organization has spent the last four decades promoting cinematic talent in Sri Lanka, a country still scarred by the legacy of its long-running civil war, as it hunts for 'The Next Big Thing' in terms of directorial talent.
Some feel there's a huge gap to fill after the island nation's most famous filmmaker, Lester James Peiris, passed away in April at the age of 99 having brought global recognition to Sinhala cinema. Many critics regard him as the "Father of Sinhala cinema" and have compared him to his Indian contemporary, Satyajit Ray.
In August that organization, SIGNIS, ran a short film festival under the banner "Director Tomorrow" along with an awards ceremony to shine a light on social issues and the next generation of aspiring cinematic greats.
Roshan Edward, who works as a video editor and color grader at a private company in Colombo, claimed first prize for his debut, Wind Through the Holes.
It focuses on the travails of a Tamil mother who lost her son, a member of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), during the 26-year war that drew to a close in 2009 when the military crushed the separatists.
The plot follows the mother as she scurries around town trying to persuade a sympathetic photo editor to tidy up an old photograph of her boy dressed in his LTTE uniform — to no avail. At every shop she is turned away due to the social stigma attached to the group.
Edward said he was surprised to claim the top prize and that this reflected how SIGNIS and the jury of university academics and veteran directors were open-minded to sensitive subject matter.
Roshan Edward won first prize at this year's awards for his short film, ‘Wind through the Holes.’ (Photo supplied)
"I think it adds even more credibility to the SIGNIS awards. It shows they are independent and unbiased," he told ucanews.com.
"We have many talented young filmmakers in Sri Lanka who can compete on an international level, but they need support and encouragement," said the 36-year-old.
"Just look at the quality we have here. The jury includes respected filmmakers and I was competing with over 100 shorts."
After spending nine years in the industry editing other people's films and commercials, he said this newfound recognition had inspired him to immediately embark on a new script.
Most the entrants at this year's festival and awards were newcomers.
Founded by the Independent Catholic Organization for Cinema (OCIC) World Assembly in Rome in 2001, SIGNIS is a Catholic lay ecclesial movement for professionals in communication media, including press, radio, TV, cinema, media education and more. It is headquartered in Brussels.
While it operates globally, in Sri Lanka it is the closest thing the domestic film industry has to the Academy Awards.
Father Lal Pushpadewa Fernando serves as the director of the Catholic National Commission for Social Communications, which organized the event. (Photo by Quintus Colombage/ucanews.com).
For over four decades, SIGNIS has been encouraging new filmmakers to experiment and focus on the language of cinema and TV. This year's short film festival was held in parallel with the annual SIGNIS Awards 2018. The Catholic Church movement for media professionals bestows the awards on films, shorts and TV shows to recognize highly skilled professionals in the industry.
This year's event was held at the Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall (BMICH) in the capital and focused on the "vitality of youth."
Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith attended the awards ceremony on Aug. 25 with bishops, priests, nuns and regional luminaries.
Fathima Shanaz, a Muslim woman who won third place for her short film, Hope, which focuses on the sensitive subject of child marriages, said she wanted to give "a voice to the voiceless" while raising important human rights issues.
She said she was deeply indebted to a number of popular Sri Lankan actors who had offered their services free of charge.
"This is my second short and I'll make another one this December," said Shanaz, a lecturer at the University of Colombo.
"I made my first short film in 2006 so I've been doing this for 12 years now."
Father Lal Pushpadewa Fernando is an oblate priest who serves as director of the Catholic National Commission for Social Communications, which helped organize this year's event.
He said the group plans to broaden its scope next year by launching a SIGNIS Asian Awards and inviting talented young actors from the region to participate.
The aim is to foster greater collaboration and further raise the bar among local artists while also giving credit where it's due to young filmmakers form around Asia, he said.
"I don't really like to refer it as a competition, but it is a film festival to help aspiring filmmakers," said Father Fernando.
"This year SIGNIS received about 100 applicants in three languages [Tamil, Sinhala, English] and we are trying to fill a vacuum by giving them a platform," he said.
"The SIGNIS awards are held in 10 or so countries now, but the Sri Lankan awards are already considered the most prestigious in Asia," he added.
"Here we don't have any hidden religious agenda. There is no bias toward any political party, commercial interest or TV station."
The awards comprise 20 categories including best director, best actor/actress, cinematography, camerawork, music, editing, lighting and finally a lifetime achievement award.
Jackson Anthony, an award-winning actor, director, singer, producer, and screenwriter, welcomed the efforts being made by SIGNIS to stimulate the domestic film industry by helping to give a new generation of filmmakers the exposure and encouragement they need.
"It is my hope that at least some of them follow in the footsteps of Sri Lanka's greats," he said.
Peiris, a film director, producer and screenwriter, left large shoes to fill when he passed in April but also inspired generations of young Sri Lankans to follow their dreams. He is often hailed as a national icon who shone a light on rural family life in his films.
In 1956 he shot Rekava (Line of Destiny) entirely outdoors in Sri Lanka. It was considered a turning point in the evolution of Sri Lankan cinema.
"Before Peiris came along, the Sinhala film industry was heavily influenced by, and copied the acting seen in the south Indian film industry," said Irangani Serasinghe, a hugely popular movie actress in Sri Lanka who appeared in more than five of Peiris' films.