by Chew Tee Pao
My first encounter with the works of Sri Lankan director Dharmasena Pathiraja was interestingly, not from having watched them.
I came to know about his films only in 2017 – The Wasps Are Here; Old Soldier; Ponmani – when AFA was alerted to the existence of the 35mm reels of these three films. The films were left languishing below a stairwell of a local institution that had collected the films but was unable to render any care for them. I recall looking at the dusty DHL boxes that looked like they had not been handled since they arrived in Singapore as a shipment from an indeterminant time ago.
I unsealed those boxes and discovered that the reels were individually engulfed by bubble wrap. Despite the wrapping, the whiff of vinegarish odour was unmistakeable. It is what any archivist dreads most – there would either be schools of mould or the honey-like black goo (signifying an advanced stage of deterioration), or worse, both.
My heart got heavy as I tore open the wrapping and studied the titles on the film cans. It dawned on me that these are not mere words. They represented somebody’s life’s works, most likely decaying right before me. Heartbreakingly, these films turned out to be among Pathiraja’s seminal works.
Most of the film base had softened and the emulsion was sticky. Warpage and shrinkage were observed in every reel with numerous adhesive stains and perforation tears.
Acetic crystals had formed on the surface of this reel, turning it into a hardened block.
Over the next few months, my team members and I took turns inspecting every reel by carefully unwinding it by hand. The disintegration of film is visually fascinating. No two reels, even when stored in the same space under the same conditions deteriorate in the same way. All the reels were found to be suffering from varying degrees of vinegar syndrome and mould infection. Physically, the reels felt as though they had been dunked or lathered in heavy black grease. Film deterioration is unfortunately irreversible. If kept under poor storage conditions and mishandled, it would be impossible to salvage the films.
As I had no inkling on the whereabouts of Pathiraja, I sent several emails to the email address I was provided but never heard back from anyone. In late January of 2018, I came across a news article that the director had been ailing for some time and passed away at the age of 74. I learnt that Dharmasena Pathiraja was fondly known as “Pathi’’. Pathi made nine feature films although his artistic career started in the early 1970s. Acclaimed for his compelling portrayals of urban underclasses, his films served as social commentaries on the prevailing socio-economic and political realities in Sri Lanka. He was dubbed the Enfant Terrible of Sinhala Cinema.
The Wasps Are Here, a literal translation from the original title Bambaru Avith, intrigued me most at the beginning because of how whimsical it sounded to me. Amongst the film elements there were many reels that we had to halt inspection as the emulsion of each film reel was stuck together. Unwinding it any further without the right equipment and chemical intervention could cause additional damage or smear the images. Of the three rescued titles, we could only unwind the reels of The Wasps Are Here, and it became clear that this title was the most complete and was in a sufficiently stable condition.
Without an available reference copy to view from, I managed to locate and watch a copy of the film online through a Sri Lankan movie streaming site. Even from the poor resolution and heavily watermarked copy, it was evident that Pathi displayed a sensitivity and aesthetic brilliance, from the cinematography to the directed intensely poetic performances of the actors. Pathi wrote and directed this fourth feature when he was only 35 years old, underscoring his talent and skill in presenting on screen the tensions between the fishing villagers and a group of city dwellers in Kalpitiya, Sri Lanka’s west coast. The story aptly portrayed the brutality and effects of exploitation within a particularly tumultuous period of social change in the country. It was at this point that I realised what the “wasps” in the title referred to. I can imagine the impact to a new generation of audiences to see this film again, and the only way to do so is for the film to be digitised and restored.
The restoration of The Wasps Are Here took almost a full year. With the blessings of Pathi’s family, we spent several months trying to locate any other film elements that might have been kept by other archives and institutions. Unfortunately, the search came to naught. It was subsequently verified by the National Film Corporation of Sri Lanka that the 35mm release print with the AFA is likely the sole surviving copy of the film.
In mid-2019, film restoration laboratory L’Immagine Ritrovata was selected to restore the film. Based in Bologna, the laboratory is highly specialised and experienced in tackling film elements plagued with complex chemical issues. It was a difficult journey ahead. An intensive desiccation treatment was applied to reduce the stickiness and to alleviate the condition of the print so that repair work could be conducted to ensure the film could mechanically withstand the digitising process. After weeks of treatment, the film could finally be unwound, and repair work could proceed.
Each reel had to undergo a dehydration treatment with silica gel in a glass desiccator. Image courtesy of L’Immagine Ritrovata.
Since there were no other film elements and good image information for comparison, automatic digital restoration tools could not be utilised. This meant that each frame could only be manually processed to remove dust/scratches. Each image had to be stabilised, de-flickered, and colour corrected. Audio restorers had to eliminate and reduce clicks, crackles, and bumps within the soundtrack to smoothen excessive noise and balance the overall tone.
A ‘before’ and ‘after’ restoration clip
As part of AFA’s preservation workflow, the raw and restored digital scans, a new 35mm picture and sound negatives, and a new positive print of the restored version of the film have been produced. The film was selected for Cannes Classics at the 73rd Cannes Film Festival in 2020, a testament to the masterpiece waiting to be rediscovered, made possible through the successful restoration of the film.
While we celebrate these moments of screening opportunities on international platforms, we are reminded that restoration is a means to an end, allowing archives to present film classics to new generations of audiences and to raise awareness of the importance and urgency of film preservation. Restoration is an expensive and laborious process. There may not always be funding to restore a film but in the meantime, there is a greater number of films that are lost when they are not being preserved. My hope is that more filmmakers will realise the importance of entrusting and preserving their films with a film archive as soon as possible, and not wait till it has deteriorated to a point when only restoration can help salvage it, if it is even salvageable. This is how we lose films.
In the course of my work, I have come across films that were thought to be lost and then found in serendipitous ways. There are others that will be at risk of being lost because the owners perpetually placed the preservation of their own works on the back burner. And then there are the films we will never get to preserve in its entirety, but bits and pieces will still persevere through time: for instance, a fragment of a reel will be left, an advertising flyer could be kept by a collector, or the film title will ring a bell to someone.
I remember I was moved to tears as I watched the opening sequence of the restored The Wasps Are Here for the first time. Seeing the clarity of the scene on screen was indescribable. I could see the richness and the depths between the blacks and whites in the landscape sequences. There was a feeling that strangely enveloped me as the song Udumbara Hinahenawa played in a timed fashion over the titles, as the rhythm drummed to the beating of my heart.
I was left thinking that Pathi would be proud that his film has persevered.
Selected for the Classics section of Cannes International Film Festival in 2020, Bambaru Avith is acknowledged to be director Pathiraja’s masterpiece and a pioneering work of Sri Lankan cinema. The film is the first South Asian film to be restored by the Asian Film Archive. Be the first in Asia to catch the restored version of Bambaru Avith at Oldham Theatre from 18 June to 7 July 2021.