14th December 1997


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The reel taste of golden memories

By Noel Crusz

The recent restoration of the Government Film Unit's colour lab by 'Hayley's Photoprint Ltd.' is a welcome step in the GFU's long but chequered history. The golden jubilee is not far off. It took me back to the days when David Lean was shooting Bridge On The River Kwai in 1956 in Ceylon.

He called on the GFU to salvage his poor sound recordings of the Japanese Commander Colonel Saito. It was to George Wickremasinghe that Lean offered a bouquet for the excellent post-dubbing sessions at Moratuwa.

The GFU was born with Ceylon's independence on Feb 4 1948. Prime Minister Don Stephen Senanayake saw his chance when Lord Louis Mountbatten's SEAC Army units in Kandy and the RAF in Ratmalana were disbanded. Large stocks of military equipment went under the hammer except the film section and this was a windfall. There were cameras, tripods and trolleys . Two professional Mitchell 35mm Cine cameras with full lenses in excellent condition were gifted along with a 35 mm Gaumont Kalee and Walturdaw projectors. All the equipment was sent to the Irrigation Department stores in Colombo.

The brilliant journalist and editor of the Ceylon Daily News H.A.J. Hulugalle was made Director of Information, and he was asked to start a Government Film Unit. The Mission Hut building of the RAF in Ratmalana was to become the headquarters of the GFU.

In 1949 Guilo Petroni was appointed Director of the unit. He was a documentary film maker, cameraman and editor from Italy. Petroni got down Frederico Serra a sound engineer and recordist, who was also an all round technician in electronics. A Westrex six channel sound recorder was imported from the USA, along with a small 35mm processing plant and printer. The film unit began to function with George Wickremasinghe as the processor and printer.

The GFU's first production was Independence Returns to Ceylon . It was shown at Temple Trees in 1948. D.S.Senanayake and other VIPS, like Sir John Kotelawala and Lord Soulbury, praised Wickremasinghe's efforts. Then Mr. Senanayake wanted Petroni to make a film about a peasant family in the dry zone in the Polonnaruwa area so as to highlight the colonisation schemes of the Government. New Horizons was the title of Petroni's film, which was made with a full shooting crew.

When Petroni delayed in making the film, the Prime Minister came to the GFU in Ratmalana to see the rushes. Here he discovered that the GFU had no toilet beyond a lone coconut tree where Mr. Senanayake was asked to ease himself. The Prime Minister suggested some changes in New Horizons, and got into his Rolls Royce and returned to Colombo. The next day the PWD built a toilet at the GFU. It was also at this time that a newsreel unit was formed. Anandatissa de Alwis, a talented journalist wrote the commentaries and did the narration for the first newsreels.

Every Friday the newsreels were released to the Ceylon Theatres and Liberty Cinema circuits. Sir John Kotelawala took a keen interest in newsreel coverage especially in the Kurunegala area and the Katugaha plumbago mines. On a Saturday morning Sir John in shorts and shirt would drive in his Ford V8 to see the current productions. On January 26, 1955 there was a scathing editorial on Film Unit Fun. It stated that 'the news reels only showed the Prime Minister, front view, side view, and back view, in close-ups and long distance shots.' The lord of Kandawala was more than amused and invited his critics to a morning 'egg hopper feed'. Audiences however were fed up with this slant on information where the trivialities of politicians grabbed the film footage.

Earlier when Prime Minister D.S. Senanayake saw New Horizons he was hopping mad. As Petroni's contract was ending, it was not renewed and Ralph Keene, a well known English documentary film maker was given a contract. His first film was Fishermen of Negombo. He wrote the script and the commentary and George Wickremasinghe photographed and directed it. The film was edited by George Stuart with a narration by Deva Suriya Sena and orchestration by Hussain Mohammed. There were mixed reviews with Fred de Silva of the Observer panning it, whilst Francis Ashborn of the Times praised it. Fred went for the jugular attacking Keene's script and lambasting Wickremasinghe' s direction. Ashborn saw another side and praised the new approach that the GFU was taking.

Ralph Keene then made Heritage of Lanka showing the grandeur of Anuradhapura, Mihintale and Polonnaruwa. After this production Ralph Keene' s contract ended on November 8, 1952, and George Wickremasinghe was appointed as Director.

Soon the young Lester James Peries, who had returned from London to join the GFU made a valuable contribution in his film Conquest of the Dry Zone. It dealt with the malaria problems in the villages of Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura. I remember the impact of Lester's film, where there was a touching portrait of the people and the land coming back to life from what was a peasant graveyard.The unit's cameramen like Vincent Perera, Leo Wickramaratne and Wimal Perera who shot the Kandy scenes were showing their talent. The sound recorders M. Sathianathan and G. Sandanayake with editor T.A. Kamoor contributed to the success of this GFU production.

Salute to Freedom and Festival Dancers were the new documentaries and this included Nursing Today with the commentary done by Perrin Rustomjee. Irwin Dassanayake produced Shadow on Life, The Living Wild and The Veddahs Of Ceylon. P. Hettiaratchi made Art and Architecture of Ceylon on the Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa periods. Makers, Motifs and Materials was a colour film on the gem and jewellery of the country. Wickremasinghe attended the German International Film Festival in Berlin and among the audience seeing the Ceylon films were Hollywood stars Esther Williams and Cary Grant.

At a UNESCO meeting on the Development of Information Media in South East Asia held in Bangkok in January 1960, Wickremasinghe took the floor. He spoke on 'language versioning' and said that in Ceylon we produce tri-lingual films and release these through our mobile vans in rural area where no cinemas are operating.

The GFU weekly newsreels kept their schedules in the commercial cinemas, and got not a few whistles and hoots when politicians came on the screen. There were three mobile GFU cinema vans that toured the country, which was shaping up for a general election. When the SLFP eventually came into power, Mr.C.A.S Marrikar was given the portfolio of Minister of Posts, Broadcasting and Information.

The production of a weekly newsreel was not an easy task. The GFU in spite of its shortcomings however played an important part in pioneering local film production. It confronted the technical problems, and gave audiences the first glimpse of a country awakening from colonialism to independence. The GFU certainly took the risks of learning its craft the hard way and opening avenues for the local film industry, which avoided the pitfalls and mistakes of the pioneers. The rapid strides however of Television made the film newsreels an anachronism.

Yet every country in the world has jealously guarded its heritage of precious black and white news and documentary footage . With the advent of the GFU's golden jubilee one hopes that our film archives will re-tell the island's story.

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