Telling the story of his stories
‘Coming home’, BAFTA winner Asitha Ameresekere talks about his creations to Ruhanie Perera
If there is one word he mentions at every turn, it is ‘storyteller’. Perhaps this is because stories make him. They simmer, occupying different spaces on the backburners of his mind. He allows them to take their time, giving them room to breathe, take shape and form. It’s a pact between the moment of expression and its speaker – and thus, at least until the writing of the story is over, there is for him, the need to inhabit the world of his story.
He is not afraid to claim those moments of creation, making himself vulnerable to situations that move him, and find therein the beginning of a vision. That’s difficult, he admits – you are defenceless – but for him it’s absolutely vital. Here, expression is crystallised, born in a cocoon-like state. And, once he has bottled in a sense the essence of the story he wants to tell, the writer in him kicks in and takes over.
Asitha Ameresekere tells stories. Therefore, he is.
In Sri Lanka last week on a flash visit to attend the CIMA Business Leaders Summit, Asitha Ameresekere with his recent BAFTA win, was one of a panel of speakers who breathed meaning to the event’s theme ‘making the leap from good to great.’ The invitation for the summit, which came shortly after his film ‘Do Not Erase’ won best short film at the 60th British Academy Film Awards was a congratulatory arm extended to a creative artist who had made Sri Lanka proud, and for the artist himself, it was a reason to come back home.
For Asitha, a writer/filmmaker of the Diaspora, ‘home’ is an interesting concept. Born in London and having lived a major part of his life there, it is home. But, ‘coming home’ is clearly the journey to Sri Lanka, which, for Asitha was “unexpected”, “hectic” and “brilliant”. Almost self-conscious about the attention, Asitha tries to recount the experience and reflects on a half finished sentence, “It was just…”
In post-BAFTA times we ask, has life changed? Life, notes the writer taking the question in his stride, has changed. Suddenly laughter fills the room. He is amused by himself. On a more serious note, he acknowledges that wins in the BAFTA league are a door-opener, which most importantly get your work read, with scripts probably finding their way to the top of the pile. And that actually has happened, says Asitha, indicating that he has had meetings with a couple of larger production companies that have shown an interest in his future work.
Do Not Erase, says Asitha, was inspired by the events of 2003 when the coalition forces went into Iraq and there was a lot of news on the soldiers at the frontlines, mostly British and American and he found himself wondering what the families of these soldiers were thinking. In those first few months they didn’t have much on their children’s whereabouts because of the political tension back in England. “No contact, no letter, not even an indication of which part of Iraq their child was serving in” – until the knock on the door brings with it the news that their child is missing in action or dead.
What were your reasons for telling this story, I ask. “I have no knowledge of this – no experience of this – and I wanted to know. I have a lot of questions about what goes on through a family’s mind and I wanted to know what happens to them.”
His researching process for the film didn’t take him to these families however. “I didn’t go and talk to anyone – I wanted to – but I felt very… I think intrusive. I couldn’t see myself going and talking to a family about this.” There was also the consideration that in talking to the families, he would have to tell them that he was making a film and then, he says, “I think there would have been some kind of obligation to give the film a slant.” For Asitha, in his mind, the film is neither pro-war or anti-war, it just deals with the fact of war.
It is this independence in approach that allows Do Not Erase to be not just about Iraq. It becomes a narrative of war, shifting the focus from the battlefield and foregrounding the lives of the communities affected by war. It becomes the story of the individual who fights erasure and in doing so demands acknowledgement of the person. “I think,” muses Asitha, “subconsciously Sri Lanka had a lot to play in my mind when I was thinking about this film,” even though he was moved by the conflict and what happened to families in a specific context. This feeling is perhaps what shaped his firm desire to have the film subtitled in Sinhala and Tamil for Sri Lankan audiences.
Despite his deep desire to share his work with the people of Sri Lanka, Asitha, as a migrant writer/filmmaker has never felt the responsibility to tell the Sri Lankan story. “I am not that kind of storyteller,” he says, clearly indicating that here is a writer who possibly rejects the baggage of the migrant experience. He creates because it comes naturally for him. But in doing so, and winning the recognition of an international artistic community, his ‘Sri Lankan-ness’ comes to the fore, clearly even for him. The incomprehensible, for him was how proud people here were of the achievement – “when I came here I realised the impact it had on people here, especially at this time.”
Consistently sent back home to Sri Lanka by his parents after they left has probably contributed to Asitha’s relaxed sense of identity; that, and his different travel experiences.
Moving around, in fact, was something he liked. It meant a taste of different cultures and different people. Your experience of living in a place is altered just because of the experience of living and breathing in a different city. In that stationary moment you have time to think about how all these experiences culminate; that moment is London. From Sri Lanka, clearly, it was shaping of his sense of self – “identity, and the questions surrounding the concept”. “We came back to understand where we come from and who we were, and this was important because we were growing up in 70s, 80s England which could be racist.” In Peru, where he taught, it was about learning – “I went there wanting to teach and when we left we had been taught”. And in LA, where he studied film, he learnt to separate art from life, leaving LA knowing that unlike the general sense of things there, he needed to live first – “that’s the stuff art is made of”. Clearly for him the diverse cultural experiences have been empowering, and in the Rushdian sense he straddles the cultures that have made him with a kind of ease that keeps him from the crisis of falling between the stools.
With two more films in the works, Asitha’s most immediate ‘next step’ is the publication of his collection of short stories titled Wedding Gifts and Other Presents. Published by local publishing house Perera Hussein, this collection is twelve years in the making. Written originally as wedding gifts by the man who couldn’t bring himself to give a friend an eggcup off a bridal registry just because his friend’s wife wanted one, the collection has also expanded to include ‘other presents’ and word exercises. With absolutely no connection to each other, the stories are written in the style of magic realism, personalised by the original dedication and held together within the short story format which Asitha absolutely loves because it’s a “very freeing, beautiful genre”, the work sounds like it’s going to be a delightful adventure.
While the collection does have stories set in Sri Lanka, has Asitha felt the stirrings of a Sri Lankan story? Yes, he has, without feeling responsible to tell such a story. A novella is bubbling over, while a film is a deep desire. And yet, we will know of them when this storyteller feels that the story is ready for the telling.