The art of storytelling

Saturday, 19 February 2011 00:47 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Filmmakers gather to discuss the challenges of producing documentaries, global opportunities and funding problems as the world’s largest wildlife and environmental film festival arrives in Sri Lanka

By Uditha Jayasinghe

Documentary film making is a challenging field in Sri Lanka yet inherently possessing much interest. A group of international and local film makers gathered on Thursday 17 February to discuss the magic art of storytelling, funding and distribution at the British Council as part of The Wildscreen Festival.

Twelve environmental filmmakers from the UK came to Sri Lanka as part of the Wildscreen Festival, which showcased free screenings of wildlife and environmental films from across the world. A series of lectures or master classes were held to encourage and educate budding film enthusiasts so that they can navigate the problems of their prospective profession with more ease. Six filmmakers participated in the panel discussion that was held on Thursday and aired their views on the "Differences and mutual challenges in Asian, American and European productions/film making."

The local story

Starting off the discussion Sri Lankan filmmaker Taya Diaz who has collaborated in making over 20 full-length international wildlife documentaries insisted that the local TV stations need to allocate a space for local documentaries. He recalled a time when State television had specific time slots for the locally produced content but this interest has eroded with commercialisation.

"Private TV stations are more interested in profits but at least State TV should return to having an interest in showcasing documentaries. Unless there is a space for distribution of documentaries few people are going to be interested in entering a profession where their livelihood is not assured. Educating the local people to appreciate the natural value of their country is very important to preserving it. Moreover as Sri Lanka looks to increase their tourism trade it would be hugely beneficial to produce documentaries that can show Sri Lanka to the world," he said adding that there is barely a documentary film industry in Sri Lanka as a result of the lack of infrastructure.

The other panellists who comprised of Amanda Theunissen, a renowned producer who has worked extensively in all forms of television including the BBC, National Geographic and Discovery, Television writer, director and producer Dominic Weston also from the UK, Filmmaker Anoma Rajakaruna and Sri Lanka’s leading documentary producer Delon Weerasinghe all agreed that the niche for documentaries in Sri Lanka was limited but were optimistic of opportunity.

Funding models

Anoma Rajakaruna is a sociologist with a strong interest in communication. She has been producing documentaries for the last two decades and despite the challenges within the field insists that there is scope out there. Since her films are largely research based her funding is also sourced with that in mind. "My model of filmmaking is slightly different. I believe that storytelling, funding and distribution of a documentary are all interlinked because your audience decides how a story should be told. I have found a market for my work in South Asia and interestingly Indian TV stations have given them air time. There are also parties in India that sell films in DVD form and promote them as gifts- much the same way we buy books to give family and friends. So there are new ways to get your work noticed."

For Delon Weerasinghe who has delivered content to every media from film to internet the challenge lies in capacity building. He pointed out that despite talented people attempting to make documentaries in Sri Lanka their technical knowledge is limited. Moreover their professionalism in terms of efficiency and westernised working models was not impressive.

"Sometimes you get a 40 page brief from your co-producer for a 10 minute film and most of our filmmakers can’t understand half of what is specified there. I have worked on 25 co-productions in the past five years and I believe that our filmmakers need to understand the work ethics of their counterpart as well as what is expected of them. If you don’t speak their language it is a huge challenge." He suggested a more professional attitude for documentary making where the directors adapt themselves to foreign work models and try to cooperate with their counterparts as much as possible. Not only would this teach them new skills but would open more opportunities to them.

All the filmmakers agreed that finding funding was a "huge problem" but they also acknowledged that the money is out there for people willing to go after it. Dominic Weston stressed that even though British production houses receive a huge amount of their funding from North American based companies such as National Geographic and Discovery Channel it is not to film British wildlife. "They purchase our expertise to make films outside of the UK. So while I agree that Sri Lanka has a great deal of stories to tell, filmmakers can also export their skills to make documentaries in other countries."

Delon Weerasinghe agreed with this statement adding that when a company gives a commission for a film the bulk of the money goes to the people who are providing the core expertise. This means that while the local co-producers are given funds for field operations such as transport and accommodation the "real money" remains out of their grasp. Despite the advance of the internet its usage as a distribution tool still remains limited as capturing an audience is challenging. "If you take Youtube for example one can view 100 films in a matter of minutes so holding the audience long enough to elicit an emotional response from them is difficult. This fleeting attribute of the internet makes it difficult to convert it into a funding source."

Crowd funding

Finding a way to break into the "charmed circle" of international documentary making is not easy. However, the internet has provided light at the end of the tunnel by creating a space for distribution and encouraging the audience to fund work that they wish to see. "The Age of Stupid" is a good example of this said Amanda Theunissen who detailed how mainstream media and internet had been combined to keep people interested in the project for over a year. "The Age of Stupid was completely made by crowd funding and continues to generate interest for precisely this reason. I firmly believe that this is the future. It can also provide an alternative to filmmakers thereby widening this "charmed circle" so that more original work can be made.


Pix by Daminda Harsha Perera