War wounds

“The main reason I wanted to be a filmmaker was to heal my soul,” Sanjeewa Pushpakumara, director of Tiger contender Flying Fish, tells Ben Walters. “Without telling this story to the world, there would be no reason to live in this world for me.”

Flying Fish comprises three interwoven stories set against the backdrop of contemporary Sri Lanka. The conflict with the Tamil Tigers, or LTTE, looms large: in one tale, a 13-year-old girl is caught up in the LTTE’s demands of support from her father; in another, a middle-aged man is distressed at his daughter’s relationship with a soldier, and in the third, a teenager resents his mother’s affair with a local man. Violence, humiliation and despair are shot in stately compositions, often against stunning natural beauty.

“These are true stories,” says Pushpakumara, who was born in 1977 in war-stricken eastern Sri Lanka. “These are experiences from my home town, which is far away from Colombo. This film tells how we grow up as human beings in Sri Lanka, what kind of problems we have had to overcome and how our people’s dignity has been lost. I always wanted to tell this story to the world, but how could I do it without money?”

Having studied filmmaking in Sri Lanka and South Korea, Pushpakumara eventually secured $25,000 in production funding and a further €25,000 completion money from IFFR’s Hubert Bals Fund. “Without that, the project would still be on its way,” he says. Production was kept simple. “I shot in my home town, all the people stayed in my home, my mother made food for up to 70 people. I worked mostly with amateurs. My DoP hadn’t made a feature before, nor had the production designer and most of the cast.”

Pushpakumara’s cinematic heroes include Sri Lankans Ashoka Handagama and Prasana Vithanage, as well as Panahi, Kiarostami, Reygadas, Apichatpong and Kim Ki-Duk, about whom he has written a book. And he describes Tarkovsky and Bergman as “the gods in my life. I don’t believe in religion but I believe in these gods.”

The Sri Lankan government last year crushed the LTTE. Pushpakumara sympathised with their objective, but not their tactics. “There should be a state for the Tamil people,” he says, “but I couldn’t accept the way the LTTE’s demands were made. They conscripted so many kids my age who lost their lives. Both the LTTE and the Sri Lankan army victimised people. My father was beaten by the army. I was beaten several times as a kid.”

The war might be over but its effects remain – effects some would rather not engage with, because of personal discomfort or national pride. “Most people don’t want to hear this story in Sri Lanka but, for me, people’s dignity is more important that the country’s,” Pushpakumara says. “Materially, the war is over but the ideological war is still there. The fear that was in people’s minds is still there. And people are still thinking of the dignity they lost.”