The dapper man, sat quietly eat ing marmalade and toast with his film director wife Sumitra. Lester James Peries is the pride of Sri Lanka's National film makers. He is the undisputed doyen of Sri Lanka cinema, respected and loved by an adoring public. His position remains undisputed and he is one of the few prophets in his chosen discipline honoured in his own country.
Last week at a ceremony held to mark the golden jubilee of the National Cinema, Lester James Peries was presented the Life Time Achievement Award by President Kumaratunga. It was her decision to acknowledge this outstanding film personality.
"I treasure this award a lot given for my contribution to the local film industry. It is a distinction that does make me feel that my film career has been worthwhile," said Lester. "It was a total surprise and I am deeply moved by it." Lester is no novice to accolades and acclamation. He has won the Legion of Honour-Commander of Arts and Letters, the highest Award given in France for his contribution to the film industry.
He has also had the honour of having exhibited three of his films Rekawa, Baddegama and Kali Yugaya at the world renowned film festival at Cannes and has also served on the Jury Board at Cannes.
Yet he shed a tear of gratitude when he thought that his President had sought to honour him. To him it was his crowning glory.
Lester said, ''Altogether the Awards ceremony was a very moving one, where pioneers of the film industry were recognised for their role in local film-making. Some could barely walk."
Ten Awards were given, chosen by 32 practising critics. Nidhanya directed by Lester James Peries and based on a novel by G. B. Senanayake was chosen as the best film and Gamperaliya the second and Rekawa the ninth best film also directed by him.
"For forty long years," said Lester, "since I made 'Rekawa' in 1956 I have been in the cinema business. I belong rightly to the first generation Cine Cinema which started in 1947 upto 1957 - the first decade.
In the cinema, he said, one has to decide whether to make commercial films for purely entertainment value. He said, "I don't depreciate their value. It is an important and an integral part of the film industry. But at the same time there is the film that communicates experiences, the time in which we live, portrays life and human relationships in the society in which we live. 'Gamperaliya' and 'Rekawa' were of this type. They were popular and perhaps appealed to some inner need of the public, to know their own social values. They entertained the people as well. The people had an empathy with those portrayed in the films. I am sure were these films to be shown today there would still be a considerable audience," he added.
Hindi films have influenced cinema-going audiences in the past but not today, Lester believes. Their influence has grown less and less. But I must point out that Hindi films are pretty good now, so much so that they are very popular in the West today. "There are serious Hindi films today and they have a considerable market."
"I must make it clear that the two types of films, entertaining films and serious ones are not contrary to each other or antagonistic. Both are necessary. As in journalism you have both serious and light articles."
What was the secret of his films, counting 20 in all? His films, one feels certainly exercise the hypnotism and magic of a man perfectly attuned to understanding the tastes of the film-going public.
"My success I think, is partly due to the fact that I never compromised. I went ahead and did what I wanted to do and did not deviate from that, no matter what the pressures on me were. Also one must have a deep sense of dedication, despite ups and downs."
He mused thoughtfully and said, "Now the cinema belongs to the younger generation. What has been made is made, these films cannot be changed, but I fervently hope the younger generation will have the humility and the good sense to learn from our mistakes."
"You ask me about the competition from TV? Every country has to cope with this - be it England, France, Germany or India.
"But occasionally even a small film becomes a Box Office hit such as ''Four Weddings and a Funeral'- a British comedy.
''Apart from refusing to compromise I have gone to the best of Sinhala novels for my inspiration. I felt they reflected what I wanted to show the people. They are Martin Wickremesinghe's Gamperaliya, Kali Yugaya and Yuganthaya - the Trinity.''
In France, Lester is working to bring about a healthy rapport between French and local culture.
Lester will go down in the annals of cinematic history as the man who had the guts to make serious films and succeed. Age will not wither him, he will linger in the memory of people here as the master of the national film industry.
At the recent awards cer emony to commemorate fifty years of local cinema Sumitra Peries won the Award for the best film Director while Lester her husband won the first, second and ninth places at the Awards ceremony for the best films spanning fifty years of Lankan cinema. For the last two-and-a-half years Sumitra has been Sri Lanka's Ambassador in France. Educated in France she knows French and is familiar with the mores and attitudes of the French people, which has helped her a great deal.
What of this big change from film director to ambassador?
''It surely is not such a change. In films one learns to deal with human nature at different levels and in different areas. So to me, to now handle people and interact with them amicably is no problem,'' she said.
Ms. Peries further said: "I have been used to meeting Prime Ministers, Presidents and the like here and in other countries. This has all given me great confidence in carrying out my job.
"Before I took up office the problem of human rights in Sri Lanka was there, but today it is not so because of the policies of President Kumaratunga and her government. They are confident that she is handling this problem constructively and with understanding.
"France has also shown in the recent past an interest in investing here and helping with our water and electricity generating projects.
"I am proud to state that in 45 years a Sri Lankan President visited France when I was there. The Foreign Minister too has come thrice. I must say the French people feel a warm kinship with Sri Lanka what with President Kumaratunga speaking fluent French among other factors."
It goes without saying that nothing is more important to each one of us than our health. But it is sometimes overlooked that what is true for individuals is also true for whole countries.
Health is a human right - but it is also essential for economic growth and social cohesion. High levels of infant and maternal mortality, a high burden of disease, and abbreviated life expectancy are all characteristics of under-developed economies. Conversely, the "tiger" economies of Asia have in common a high level of investment in basic health care. Personal health and well-being is in fact the baseline indicator for sustainable development.
As defined by WHO, the World Health Organization, health is a positive state of physical and mental well-being. It depends on the individual's ability to promote not merely protect, personal health. It follows that the power of personal choice, as well as the social confidence, skills and knowledge imparted by education, have an important part to play in better health.
This is especially important for women, who have responsibility not only for their own health but that of the family as well. Women's personal health has been neglected relative to other health sectors, with very damaging effects for them, the family and the whole community.
We know from experience that an integrated approach to social development is essential for achieving universal health. Individual empowerment - for women and men alike - and freedom to make choices in life is both an aim and a condition of an integrated approach.
Successfully addressing the needs of women is a key to the success of integrated social development. It goes without saying that every country needs the resource represented by its female population. It should be equally clear that women's personal development is an end in itself. We should involve women directly in making and carrying out development policy. We must also promote and protect women's power to make personal decisions affecting their lives. For example. we must draw attention to the issue of violence against women, including domestic violence, as a public health concern.
The international community has recognized this reality: the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, the 1995 Social Summit and the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing all stressed the importance of working to achieve gender equality and equity and women's empowerment. They affirmed that reproductive choice and quality reproductive health care are central to this effort, and that these are basic human rights to which all women are entitled, as well as cost-effective development strategies.
Countries like Sri Lanka have shown the way—with a fifty-year tradition of women's education, political involvement and self-determination, combined with universally-available health services and emphasis on reproductive health, Sri Lanka has increased the use of family planning to one of the highest rates in Asia and reduced maternal mortality to one of the lowest. Sri Lanka has shown that a healthy, and educated female workforce can help to drive economic growth.
UNFPA has been working for nearly thirty years to develop this sort of partnership in the field of population and development, with due regard for national sovereignty and cultural sensitivities.
UNFPA has taken the lead in introducing the concept and developing the content of reproductive health, a holistic approach including not only family planning but all factors associated with reproduction.
This concept is based on the right of individuals to reproductive health and to the power of decision in regard to it. I was Secretary-general of the International Conference on Population and Development, 1994, and I am proud of the firm consensus of 179 nations on population and development that the conference produced. Subsequently I chaired a United Nations inter-agency task force on basic social services for all, which had the task of integrating the recommendations of the different conferences into our workplans so that UNFPA, UNICEF, WHO and all the other programmes and agencies would be working towards a common end.
Longer life expectancy, and changing lifestyles in the 21st century will bring in their wake a series of new threats to health - more heart disease, cancer and degenerative diseases, for example. Greatly increased populations and easier travel mean that infectious disease outbreaks can jump swiftly from country to country and through whole continents. Growing resistance to antibiotics poses the question of how disease outbreaks are to be controlled. Old threats like malaria and TB are making a resurgence. We are also seeing a greatly increased incidence of sexually transmitted diseases including HIV/AIDS, and it is now clear that the presence of malaria or TB infection, as well as that of other STDs greatly increases vulnerability to HIV.
This combination of new and old threats to health pose a challenge to development - indeed some developing countries are going to find it very difficult to meet them and at the same time maintain progress in other areas. What will be needed is not just a greater willingness of the part of the richer countries to come to the aid of the less fortunate, but an international structure which will give expression to our renewed sense of inter-dependence.
In this organizations such as UNFPA and still more WHO as the lead organization in international public health, will play a central part.
Public health should be a partnership between health care professionals and the general public; between international and national bodies concerned with public health; and among governments, non-governmental organizations and the private sector. We in the United Nations family must equip ourselves to do our part.
(Dr. Nafis Sadik, M.D, is Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund. A citizen of Pakistan, she is visiting Sri Lanka on October18-21)
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