By Prof. Carlo Fonseka
In 1989, the year in which the events portrayed in this film took place in Sri Lanka, the country became literally the bloodiest place on earth. Its estimated murder rate was over 100 per 100,000 of its population. The rage for murder was generated and fueled by several interrelated conflicts. There were conflicts between ethnic groups; between haves and have-nots and between political rival groups. Involvement of paramilitary groups contributed to the mayhem. The film Burning Birds depict events that occurred in a small village in Eastern Sri Lanka, in 1989. The events add up not so much to a human story, but as a horrifying episode of real history. What redeems the film from oppressive gloom is the heroic struggle for survival of a 37-year-old mother of eight minor children, after her husband had been summarily abducted, tortured and executed by a paramilitary group. The role of the heroic mother, Kusum’s, played with a disciplined emotional power by Anoma Janadari an award-winning actress. She dominates the film and sustains the story. The suspicion that state-sponsored extrajudicial violence was operative in regard to the fate of her husband is hard to avoid.
Director Sanjeewa Pushpakumara
As it happened, the Director of the film Sanjeewa Pushpakumara’s first feature film called Flying Fish had premiered at the International Film Festival at Rotterdam and attracted critical attention. In 2012, he was invited to Paris by Cinefondation of cannes Film Festival to its Residence program and commission to develop his second feature film namely, “Burning Birds” (Devena Vihangun). It is this film which emerged as the Best Film at the 15th International Film Festival and Forum on Human Rights in Geneva.
The essential facts of the story are quite simple and straightforward. After Kusum’s husband was murdered, the task of sustaining the eight children and mother-in-law fell squarely on Kusum. Unable to find a regular job, she is obliged to undertake odd jobs. At work places, she is often physically and sexually abused and heartlessly exploited. Finally, as a last resort, she takes to prostitution. This is something she had contemptuously spurned earlier. Before long, she’s arrested by the police in the brothel and this event completely disrupts the home life and children’s education. All these events are documented with a clinical accuracy in the film.
End of Patience
Eventually, Kusum’s patience is stretched to breaking point and when it breaks all hell is let loose. She goes berserk and wreaks vengeance. Murder and arson and mindless destruction ensue.
One leaves the cinema dazed by the terrible traumatic experience of watching the film.
One is tempted to ask: What makes Burning Birds tick? I think the answer lies largely in the biography of the sensitive Director. The material he is presenting to us in the film is the stuff of life we are thoroughly familiar with. There is a palpable authenticity to the film. The Director is virtually telling us a story he has observed at first hand. That is why he can depict events in their crudes forms. That, however, is not the main point. The main point is that Sanjeewa Pushpakumara has mastered the Art and Science of Cinema. In 2014, he obtained an advanced degree (Master of Fine Arts) in film making from the Chung-Ang University in South Korea as a Korean government scholarship holder. So he understands both the Science and the Art of film making. A discerning critic has remarked that the most impressive elements of the film are its photography. Sometimes it is the camera which does the acting and tells the story.
Perhaps the most significant aspects of Burning Birds is Sanjeewa’s fearless depiction of state-sponsored violence which prevailed in our country during that period. This phenomenon has not been faced upfront and openly discussed. Sanjeewa’s film has provided an opening for such a national conversation. Burning Birds does not seek to entertain us at all. The old teaching was that if a work of art does not entertain, then by definition it is not a work of art. Burning Birds presents art as an imitation of life; as communication and as education. The old generation of film makers is fading away. But the future is bright. Director Sanjeewa Pushpakumara is a Star to guide us to the future.