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For a debut feature, it’s a work of remarkable restraint.

Not a war film as such. Sanjeewa PUSHPAKUMARA’s Flying Fish is nonetheless a direct response to the civil war which ravaged Sri Lanka for some 25 years – until the Sri Lankan government moved in 2008 to crush the Tamil Tiger rebels once and for all in a series of round-ups and massacres. Like wards, the Sri Lankan civil war was ugly and brutal and scarred with atrocities; there is evidence of war crimes on both sides, which the United Nations under BAN Ki-Moon has  so far refused to investigate. PUSHPAKUMAR’s film touches on several aspects of the conflict ,including  the way that the “ Tigers” coerced the Tamil communities into providing financial and material support  for their terrorist campaigns, but this focus is on young people (both Tamil & Sinhalese)  whose lives are marked by the climate of poverty,  desperation and bloodshed.He says that the stories in the film are all based on fact and, in some cases, on his own first –hand observation of what happened in Sri Lanka’s village.

These are stories filled with rage, suffering, sexual abandon, and calamity, but the director films them with a cool detachment. For a debut feature, it’s a work of remarkable restraint. He films mostly in wide – angle shots, using very few close-ups, insisting on on seeing the characters as figures in landscapes. There are probably several reasons why he chose this type of “cinematic staging” (as David BORDWELL calls it). One is that it follows the example of the film-makers he admires – HOU Hsiao –hsien, perhaps, who realized very early in his career that the best way to work with non-or semi-professional actors was to allow them some autonomy of movement in a wide composition and to give them the space to behave naturally. Another is that he’s wary of melodrama. The stories he tells all deal with intense and sometimes extreme emotions, but doesn’t want to wallow in the characters passions in the close-up – and he doesn’t want the viewer to do so either. And yet another is that he wants to evoke the off screen horrors of the war as much as the on screen tensions and traumas the characters experience. Wide angle compositions suit his purposes on all counts.

The film offers a wide range of characters across its three story lines, but the director is mainly interested in the children. He starts from an insider’s view of Sri Lankan rural life: he shows work, boredom, frustration, hunger, sex and violence in a matter of fact way, giving us images of a kind not found in earlier Sri Lankan movies. He uses very minimal dialogue, preferring to let the images do the “takking” and then he adds the strongly felt reality of the unseen war, which derails and deforms all the characters attempts to lead normal lives. The war brings soldiers into the villages and co-opts the adult males into the civil defense force, where they are ridiculed and humiliated by the professionals. Sex between visiting soldiers and local girls inevitably follows, along with unwanted pregnancies and botched attempts at abortion. The traditional morality of the communities falls to pieces. Driven by guilt and rage, the characters do things that would have been unthinkable in another time. Hanging over everything is the unspoken question: what is all this doing to the children? What will the next generation of adults be like?

PUSHPAKUMARA has an interesting and unusual biography. He’s from avillage in east Sri Lanka, and has had stints in broadcasting (radio and TV) and journalism as well as studying Mass Communications and publishing books on Cinema. He’s made a couple of shorts before, but this heroic indie feature announces his talent. Sri Lankan cinema found its first true modernist.

By Tony Rayans / 5th Cinema Digital Seoul Film Festival 2011 (Pg. 46-47)

The sun still rises:CinDi’s Asian Competition

Vimukthi Jayasundara’s Mushrooms (Chatrak) and Sanjeewa Pushpakumara’s Flying Fish (Igillena maluwo). Both these films, one enigmatic and the other angry, use boldly non-realist strategies to provide insiders’ accounts of deeply divided and unequal societies coming to terms with the modern world. Mushrooms, Jayasundara’s third feature, which premiered in this year’s Cannes Directors’ Fortnight (his first, The Forsaken Land (Sulanga Enu Pinisa), won the festival’s Camera d’Or in 2005), resorts to outright allegory as a successful architect looks out over the sprawling city he is building while his brother lives a mute, inglorious life in the forest, unable or unwilling to cope with the ambition that drive his brother.

Flying Fish
For all its striking imagery, Mushrooms seems too schematic, but Flying Fish offers an extraordinary journey to the heart of Sri Lankan darkness with no less vivid, sensual images. Set during the 25-year civil war that convulsed Sri Lanka, Pushpakumara’s remarkable debut draws on his own experience growing up in a remote village, where ordinary lives were degraded by the struggle between Tamil Tigers and government forces (shown as equally brutal). Recurrent close-up images of exotic insects and landscapes of startling beauty intersperse scenes of sexual exploitation, making this a far from comfortable films to watch. But there’s no denying its impassioned originality. We gave it the Blue Chameleon jury prize, and there’s a chance to see for yourself in the London Film Festival.

By Ian Christie / Sight & Sound  / August 2011

FLYING FISH / A Sanjeewa Pushpakumara film from Sri Lanka

Sanjeewa’s film intertwines three stories dealing with the spoils of the Sri Lankan civil war. A young girl is harassed at school by Tamil Tigers who demand monetary “donations” that her family cannot afford to pay. An unmarried lovelorn woman is impregnated by a soldier. When the soldier abandons her, the girl and her father struggle to endure the shame. A widow, mother of eight children longing for male companionship, mistakes a well-to-do villager’s questionable benevolence towards her family as love. Tragedy strikes when her teenage son discovers the affair.

Sanjeewa’s approach to story-telling is clinical. He avoids the trappings of attention-seeking and sometimes imposing extreme close-up/ close ups and frenzied cuts to create tension and drama. He uses what is essential with the belief that less-is-more to render the three stories. He uses extreme long shots, stationary camera and long and often voyeuristic takes to lead us into the unfamiliar world of Sri Lanka’s countryside – a countryside which looks like a land under occupation, where people live like refugees. A populace with neither any ideal nor hope! Waiting for the impending doom is their only choice. It doesn’t matter who is a Tamil or who is a Sinhalese – both are perpetrators of violence, both are victims. Men enlist in the army or otherwise get executed by the Tamil Tigers or the local pro-government militia or just hang out with a rifle in hand. When they don’t have anything else to do, the pro-government militia and the army seduce local women into having sex.

Prolonged and repeated love-making among ruins, first captured in static long shots and then slowly closing in a little to a point from where we could clearly observe without spoiling the act and hear the gasps of the love-making couple, infuses an otherwise morbid mood of the film with a raw and liberating energy. The long takes turn us into voyeurs.

Scenes of bathing of the impregnated unmarried woman and her soldier lover in the river in twilight, the rendezvous of the widow’s son with his classmate-girlfriend among boulders to escape the senseless misery – are all observed from a distance. Even the criminal acts  – crimes of passion and killings which conclude each of the three stories — are shot in wide-angle with camera placed even further than for a normal medium shot so as not to merely exploit the obvious shock value of the moments.

Take a stroll in the locales with Sanjeewa’s camera and you meet people living in constant fear – even the fish vendors, with cutting knives in hand, look like executioners! The bloody remains of the chopped fish portend to impending death.

Flying Fish has done exceptionally well at international film festivals and has bagged the Critics Choice award at the 5th New Jersey Independent South Asian Cine Fest (

By Sakti Sengupta (Asian-American Film Theater)  /  March 2011, on Celluloid views

Igillena maluwo

Debuting helmer Sanjeewa Pushpakumara has no problem conveying the sense of a lush country numbed by civil war, but he also wants to give “Flying Fish” a narrative despite having little sense of how to construct one story, let alone three. Aiming for some of the atmospheric despair of Vimukthi Jayasundara’s “The Forbidden Land,” pic manages only incoherence and degradation without end. Sri Lanka’s brutal internal strife has traumatized the nation, yet Pushpakumara overdoes the humiliation and never grasps the drama, making this Hubert Bals Fund special merely a muddled patience-tester.

Occasional striking images can’t compensate for the absence of narrative pull, leading to confusion between characters and storylines; only the pressbook seems to know what’s going on. Men kill, screw and exploit while women screw, give birth and suffer. Families are shattered and social bonds corrupted as the army and the Tamil rebels trample over their land and honor, with recurring images of insects, ruins and urination providing further proof of the nation’s debasement. Impressionistic filmmaking is fine, but Pushpakumara seems uncertain how to achieve his goals aside from taking tragedy to a ridiculous degree.

Camera (color), Viswajith Karunarathna; editors, Ravindra Guruge, Ajith Ramanayake; music, Tharindu Priyankara De Silva; production, costume designer, Bimala Dushmantha. Reviewed at Rotterdam Film Festival (competing), Feb. 1, 2011. Running time: 124 MIN.

By Jay Weissberg / Variety

Amid War, Fierce Adversaries of the Creepy-Crawly Variety

Perhaps it’s mean-spirited to say that a movie based on the director’s personal experience of a brutal 26-year civil war is unpleasant. But that’s the word that comes to mind after watching the Sri Lankan filmmaker Sanjeewa Pushpakumara’s debut feature, “Flying Fish.” One of the film’s recurring motifs is insects — crawling on people’s legs, clustering on their food — and after a while it starts to feel as if the characters in Mr. Pushpakumara’s slow-moving, three-stranded story are being treated in much the same way as those anonymous bugs.

The fighting between the Sri Lankan Army and the Tamil insurgents, which ended in 2009, is kept off screen. What we see are three vignettes, each tying together sex, shame and violence: an impoverished widow who has an affair, to her son’s chagrin; a village girl whose trysts with a soldier are spied on by her father; and a Tamil couple who are being extorted by rebel fighters at the same time that their daughter is going through her first menstruation. Repeated images lace together the largely unconnected stories. In addition to insects Mr. Pushpakumara favors cigarettes, public urination and sex performed standing up in ruined buildings, with the audience more or less in the position of a firing squad.

The intertwining of the narratives, along with the somewhat elliptical, or perhaps rudimentary, storytelling, makes for a confusing experience. But the stories are mainly an excuse for pretty pictures, some quite striking, of poverty and oppression, and for a closing frenzy of bloodletting. Mr. Pushpakumara has studied filmmaking in South Korea, and the rhythms of “Flying Fish,” as well as some lovely watery images, bring to mind films by the Korean director Kim Ki-duk, like “The Isle” and “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter … and Spring.”

By MIKE HALE  /  New York Times  / July 7, 2011

Flying Fish / MOMA

2010. Sri Lanka. Directed by Sanjeewa Pushpakumara. With Chaminda Sampath Jayaweera, Rathnayaka Marasinghe, Siththi Mariyam. Pushpakumara’s breathtaking debut feature deftly weaves together three narratives about war-torn Sri Lanka, capturing the emotional and spiritual suffering of people trying to live a normal life amid the devastation of the country’s ongoing civil war. The landscapes of eastern Sri Lanka are captured in long takes, and the nation’s quiet rage is expressed through superbly framed tableaux vivants. Inspired by the director’s own experiences, the film is deeply felt—but its more shocking elements are not for the fainthearted.

The Private Horrors of Sri Lankan Civil War in Flying Fish

Co-writer/director Sanjeewa Pushpakumara’s debut feature portrays the recent Sri Lankan civil war as a gauntlet of private humiliations, endured by largely nameless, barely individuated villagers—making this would-be multi-strand narrative more of an impenetrable tangle. The camera hangs back, capturing many arresting views of the landscape, but more perfunctorily observing the action around the house or at the market. The majority of Flying Fish concerns ill-fated couplings—a Sinhalese soldier and pregnant Wasana, a widowed mother of eight and a younger man with a motor scooter—that are consummated inside roofless stone structures, where the forbidden lovers are discovered by distraught relatives. (The widow’s eldest son courts a schoolgirl more chastely.) Head-in-hands agony frequently gives way to insults to the natural world, as when Wasana’s father, having just stumbled upon his daughter in the act, pulverizes a bundle of freshly caught fish with a rock. Elsewhere, various genital events compound the miseries of war: A teen has her first period on a bus pulling into an army checkpoint, and later, threatened with conscription by the Tamil Tigers, blood trickles down her leg to the porch; a late daydream by the now-abandoned Wasana imagines a sex act–turned–Mortal Kombat fatality. Such shocking eruptions hammer home Pushpakumara’s cri de coeur about the way an ongoing conflict undermines the foundation of the family, and raises the stakes of mortification, despite the story’s slack telling.

By Benjamin Mercer  / Wednesday, Jul 6 2011

Excellently directed daring debut

This daring, exciting story from northern Sri Lanka convincingly captures the madness in a land where the psychology of war is omnipresent. Three parallel stories deal with the attempts of ordinary village people to lead a normal life in abnormal circumstances.
Through three parallel stories, this excellently directed and daring debut deals with economic and even greater spiritual decay as the result of a civil war lasting more than two decades.
A beautiful village girl falls in love with a soldier. Her father, 45-year-old Muthubanda, finds them making love. When his daughter falls pregnant, Muthubanda is harassed and humiliated by soldiers. He commits suicide and the girl escapes the village. Her guilt and rage push her to do the least expected.
A middle-aged widow takes care of her eight children in a village filled with tension between the army and the Tamil Tigers. She has an affair with a local. Her son catches them in the act. His frustration drives him to something that will change all his siblings overnight.
A thirteen-year-old Tamil girl lives in a village where the battle between the Tamil Tigers and the army is extremely intensive. Tamil forces are conducting active war propaganda in local schools. One night, they break into the girl’s house and demand a huge ransom for her. She chooses to escape.
With few words, this visually highly potent drama touches the core of the war tragedy and the desperate attempts of ordinary people to lead a normal life. But the physical and emotional terror violates human dignity and submerges the society in despondency.
By Ludmila Cvikova / 40th International Film Festival Rotterdam – 2011

A hugely impressive debut feature

Three stories from the Sri Lankan civil war (all with violent endings) are interwoven in Sanjeewa Pushpakumara’s coolly modernist, non-partisan debut. Best Director prize, St Petersburg.

A hugely impressive debut feature set in the north of Sri Lanka that has seen over two decades of civil war. Three parallel stories reveal the economic and – more importantly – spiritual decay within a community that struggles to hang on to a degree of normality despite the violence. A young girl falls in love with a soldier. Her father discovers them love-making and when she becomes pregnant, the shame leads to his suicide. The girl, though, chooses another way. A middle-aged widow tries to care for eight children amidst the conflict between the Army and the Tamil Tigers. Her son discovers her in a tryst with her lover, and he makes a decision that will effect the lives of them all. A young girl, threatened with forced conscription by the Tigers unless her parents pay a huge sum, decides to take alternative action herself. By showing rather than telling, and with great potency, the film reveals the physical and emotional devastation of war and the hopelessness that destroys people’s dignity, leading them to extreme actions which would not otherwise be countenanced. Nevertheless, it has a great modesty and avoids being judgemental. The beauty and tranquility of its photography only adds to the sense of the sadness of the long war it depicts.

By Helen de Witt / 55th London Film Festival


Sanjeewa’s personal Top 10 films to Sight & Sound poll 2012

400 Blows (François Truffaut / 1959)
L’Avventura (Michelangelo Antonioni / 1960)
A City of sadness (Hsiao-hsien Hou / 1989 )
Nostalgia (Andrei Tarkovsky / 1983)
Ordet (Carl Theodor Dreyer / 1955)
Rebels of the Neon God ( Tsai Ming Liang / 1992)
Sátántangó (Béla Tarr / 1994 )
The Silence ( Ingmar Bergman / 1963)
Tokyo Story (Ozu Yasujirô / 1953 )
Where is My Friend’s House? ( Abbas Kiarostami / 1989)