A critically acclaimed Sri Lankan film maker is mooting an international film festival to be held every year in Colombo. Proposed to be structured along the lines of South Korea’s Busan International Film Festival, this festival will eventually allow Sri Lanka to be on par with “Entertainment Tourism” destinations such as Singapore, Mumbai, Hanoi, Dubai, [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Colombo Int’l Film Festival mooted by film maker Asoka Handagama


A critically acclaimed Sri Lankan film maker is mooting an international film festival to be held every year in Colombo. Proposed to be structured along the lines of South Korea’s Busan International Film Festival, this festival will eventually allow Sri Lanka to be on par with “Entertainment Tourism” destinations such as Singapore, Mumbai, Hanoi, Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Bangkok, which have ongoing investments in this area.

According to well-respected local film maker Asoka Handagama, most recently known for the 2012 Cannes International Film Festival-premiered “Ini Avan”, the proposed Colombo International Film Festival (CIFF) will go a long way towards helping achieve his goal of making Colombo the “most talked about cine-city in Asia”.

Making these comments as part of a recently held public lecture at the Central Bank’s Centre for Banking Studies, Mr. Handagama further stated; “In an island where there is a tiny market for films, a policy proposal to develop cinema alone will not be a convincingly appealing idea. Disbursing loans to produce films and to build new cinemas given the current market condition will be a sheer waste of funds. Therefore the ‘goal of artistically rich and commercially viable cinema in Sri Lanka’ needs to be placed in a commercially attractive broader perspective”.

As such, he signalled that “Sri Lanka, especially Colombo, has a great potential to be developed as a destination for ‘Entertainment Tourism’ through strategic entertainment projects. ‘Entertainment Tourism’ is event based. Cities attract tourists for ‘events’ organised in these cities. An event based strategic project to achieve this dual objectives of promoting Entertainment Tourism and Film Industry in the country, would be ‘an annual gala event of cinema’”.

Continuing, Mr. Handagama noted that this event based strategic project, the CIFF, could be “launched at a scale par with major international film festivals in Asia, such as Busan, in South Korea, Singapore IFF, Dubai IFF, Tokyo IFF, etc.”

Further, he also commented; “An international film festival is an annual meeting place for an internationally renowned film community, comprised of film makers, producers, investors, artistes, distributors, exhibitors and writers. They are the opinion makers of their own countries as well as in international forums on cinema. Bringing them here and exposing local film talents to them will have an important impact on local film production and distribution”.

Mr. Handagama also opined that all these developments could also help revitalise the local film industry, which will also be further helped along by technicians, artistes, etc. working in major international co-productions.
Elaborating, Mr. Handagama said: “An international film festival brings here the newest films produced around the world, specially the independent films so that our cinema audience can experience the latest trends in world independent cinema. It can inspire local filmmakers to explore new themes and forms, raising the standards of film making to be competitive in international festivals and markets.”

He also added that this would also lead to more locally made films being showcased at major international film festivals in Cannes, Berlin and Venice, as well as eventually giving those frequently entering these festivals the skills needed to win awards. As was seen in the case of the Busan festival.

Mr. Handagama also advised that the “festival should be strategically planned so that at least five to six good local films are made targeting the festival. “ This festival can be used to expose such films to international festival directors and distributors and can be used as a marketplace for domestic films. They can later be selected to represent Sri Lanka in major international film festivals.”
Another potential outcome of the CIFF is locally-made films becoming commercially released internationally via cinemas, TV and Video on Demand (VOD) channels. And the resulting renewal of local interest in film, particularly domestically created content, could also spark more investment in multi-cinema screen type “multiplex” offerings, with the ultimate result being these “multiplexes” in every town across the island.

At the same time, the heightened interest in film brought upon by the proposed CIFF, especially in the eyes of the local populace, could lead to universities offering globally recognised degrees, or at least diplomas, in disciplines related to film making.
Meanwhile, the example of South Korea’s Busan International Film Festival (BIFF), kicked off in 1995, also emerged as a case study in line with Mr. Handagama’s proposal; “Some may think that this is an unrealistic fantasy of an over enthusiastic filmmaker, but it is not. South Korean cinema is a remarkable example for a success story. When Busan International Film Festival was launched, nobody knew about Korean cinema. Korean audience did not know about independent films produced in other countries. The festival brought international films to Korea and it exposed Korean films to the world”.

He also explained; “Focus of the festival is introducing new films and first-time directors especially from Asian countries. Screening more than 300 films from around 75-100 countries the festival attracts youthful audience of around 1.8 million annually. It inspires and promotes young talents.

The festival currently runs Asian Project Market, which is a market place for project proposals for films, Asian Film Market, a market place for already made movies, Asian Film Academy a film school for upcoming filmmakers, cinematographers and other technicians and artistes and Asian Cinema Fund, which is a funding source for Asian Independent Films. South Korean film industry entered into a Golden Era, in 1997, just one year after the introduction of BIFF. The government protection for local films was abolished and films were made open to compete with international films in the domestic market. In 1999, the Korean film ‘Swiri’ outperformed Hollywood box office hits such as ‘Titanic’, ‘The Matrix’ and ‘Star Wars’ in South Korean theatres. Written and directed by Kang Je-gyu, ‘Swiri’ was the first Hollywood-style big-budget blockbuster to be produced in the ‘new’ Korean film industry. The success of this film initiated a wave of new commercial films with large budgets”.

Further, he revealed that the “BIFF inspired Korean directors to make artistically rich, thematically challenging films to compete in major international festivals. Seven years after the inception of BIFF, the Korean film ‘Oasis’ (Lee Chang-don) won the second prize in Venice Film festival in 2002. This success was followed by many international achievements. The film, ‘Oldboy’ (Park Chan-wook) won second Grand Prix in Cannes 2004. In that same year, Korean director Kim Ki-duk won the Best Director award at the Berlin International Film Festival for his film ‘Samaritan Girl’. In 2010, Korean writer Lee Chang-don, won the Best Script award at Cannes for the film ‘Poetry’. In 2012, ‘Pieta’ (Kim Ki- duk) won the Golden Lion award at Venice Film Festival.

In 2011, the festival opened the Busan Cinema Centre, a US$ 140 million investment (30,000 square metres floor area, four indoor screens under an LED covered roof, an outdoor theatre with 4,000 seating capacity, conference rooms, media centres and many features). Now, South Korea is considered an Asian film powerhouse, producing movies from various genres, not just for Korean market but also widely for the rest of the Asia. It now belongs to the group of top 10 film markets in the world by number of films produced.

Other big markets are India, US, China, Japan, France, UK, Germany, Spain and Italy”.

“So my dream and strategy are not that unrealistic”, re-iterated Mr.Handagama, further commenting that the “Korean example clearly shows how Sri Lanka can formulate a strategy around a large scale international film festival, to develop a commercially viable, artistically rich, internationally recognised cinema industry in Sri Lanka”. How would Sri Lanka pay for the proposed CIFF? One recommendation by Mr. Handagama is that this festival tap both of government and private sector enterprises as funding sources: “Although the proposed CIFF will surely revolutionise the cinema in Sri Lanka, the tangible benefit on cinema will be medium and long-term. It will take at least two to three years to create an impact on the film industry. Surely the Treasury will not bother to add another burden to its budget. For the CIFF to be launched and sustained, it should render instant benefits for the potential funders to have it in the ‘annual events calendar’ in Colombo. This is where the role of ‘Entertainment Tourism’ comes on stage”. Outlining a number of initial funding sources, he featured the “Ministries of Tourism, Culture and National Heritage, Media, Telecommunications, Urban Development, Economic Development” as key options. He also identified other potential funding organisatons, including: “Sri Lanka Tourist Board, Hotel Corporation, Board of Investment, SriLankan Airlines, Sri Lanka Telecom, hotels, private and public banks [and] public and private media institutions such as newspapers, radio and TV channels.”

Mr. Handagama also pointed out; “As the festival grows, it can later be listed in the Colombo Stock Exchange. Or else a body like BOI alone can consider launching this project. There are examples: Dubai International Film Festival is run by Investment Corporation of Dubai. The Goa city council spends millions of rupees to Goa Film Festival. They know that the moneys invested in the festival generate profits in somewhere else in the economy. The CIFF, other than organising the annual film festival, can later engage in film production and international co-productions, marketing and distributions, exhibition and coordinating film location services, a regional film school, etc., so that it can generate its own funds.”

However, he cautioned that the “proposed film festival should not be an event that depends on regular fund allocations from the government budget.

It should be managed as a commercially viable business entity formed as a Limited Liability Company”. But; “At the outset, it must be a concerted effort of different ministries, corporations, boards and private and public companies which require international exposure for their business. They will be the initial contributors to form the capital and hence the founder owners of the CIFF”.

He further indicated that the “Colombo Film Festival, when coupled with some other live events of ‘Entertainment’ such as live performances of internationally renowned performers can be an attraction of ‘gold collar’ tourists also to Colombo. This annual event can be used to publicise other forms of live cultural events that can be planned out in an annual event calendar. Other forms of cultural products such as music, paintings, dance, literature, etc., can also be promoted to an international gathering with this festival”. Mr. Handagama also highlighted international productions using Sri Lanka as a location, saying: “David Lean shot his film classic ‘Bridge on the River Kwai’ in Sri Lanka way back in 1957. (That location today is a touristattraction) Major parts of Steven Spielberg’s ‘Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom’ were shot here in 1984. Sri Lanka has been used as the main location in many international films like ‘Water’, ‘Mother Teresa’, ‘Mid Night’s Children’ in recent years. With that past record, and its picturesque landscapes, Sri Lanka can be a unique tropical location for films with international, cross cultural themes”.

Meanwhile, Mr. Handagama also commented on the lack of nontraditional careers in Sri Lanka, saying: “Nobody wants to become a filmmaker, a musician, cinematographer, a novelist, a dramatist or a dancer. Some school boys want to become cricketers these days because of the professional nature of that sport. Our education system is also designed to produce doctors, engineers, accountants, etc. Everybody wants to become one of them and only a few succeeds. Others end up as teachers and clerical staff in government offices. These days many engineers join the central bank to work as economists”.


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