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Salient. An Organ of Student Opinion at Victoria College, Wellington, N.Z. Vol. 9, No. 9. July, 24, 1946

* Song of Ceylon

* Song of Ceylon

The British documentary film was born in 1934. It is true that Grierson had made Drifters as far back as 1929, and that other countries had quite an imposing list of titles to their credit—Nanook (1920), Rien que lea Heures (1936), Moana (1926), Berlin (1927), and Turksib (1928), but documentary is the field which British cinema was to make its own, and in 1934 there appeared Granton Trawler, Man of Aran, Cable Ship, B.B.C.—Voice of Britain, Shipyard, Weather Forecast, and Song of Ceylon. The director of Song of Ceylon, Basil Wright, had been making documentaries since 1931, and in 1933 had given us Windmill in Barbadoes with its remarkably rhythmical sugarcane cutting sequence. Not until Song of Ceylon, however, does he seem to be fully at home in the film medium. In this he has created a masterpiece.

The historical importance of Song of Ceylon is considerable, but no special pleading based on this ground is necessary in making an estimate of its greatness. The problem which Wright sets himself is a huge one—presenting to a Western audience the life, tradition, the method of thought of an Eastern people—a people whose economy, religion and art alike are strange to us. It is plainly too great a problem for the economist, the historian, the statistician, or the scientist it is a problem for the poet.

The film possesses an elaborate Internal structure—a pattern of rhythms and of interlinking visual themes, which are brought together in the manner of a musician. It is a visual symphony, and like a symphony it is divided into four movements.

1.—The Buddha: Andante

In the distant past, the whole island was covered with forest, and in the darkness of the forest, the inhabitants worshipped the devil.

Huge palm fronds drift slowly across the screen, and disclose the whirling of the grotesquely clad devil dancers, lit but dimly by the flickering rays of burning torches.

Then, there descended from the heavens One from Whose Body shone rays of light, and from Whose Head proceeded rays of the Seven Colours. When He reached the earth. His Foot first touched the summit of a high mountain where the imprint remains in the rock at the present day—similar to that of a man, but larger—some two feet in length.

The pilgrimage moves up the mountain, and at the summit the pilgrims await the sunrise.

Just as the sun rises, the shadow of the mountain can be seen stretching far across the plains—not on the surface of the earth, but perceptibly above it—for over seventy miles.

The priest at the shrine strikes a bell, and as its sound echoes from the valleys below, a small startled bird leaves Its perch on a branch by the lakeside, and darts over the tree-tops, against a background of lake, sky and mountain. It is lost in the background with the last stroke of the bell.

2—The Virgin Island: Allegretto.

On the plains and in the valleys, the people carry on their daily tasks. Crops [unclear: uve] to be planted, fish [unclear: to] netted, trees felled, fruit gathered, and houses built.

It is not considered degrading for the [unclear: highext] quality amongst them to labour in the fields, or to build, if the work be for himself. But if the work be for others, it is esteemed a great degradation.

The laughing children learn from their teacher the movements of the traditional dance.

3.—Voices Of Commerce: Scherzo.

"Dear Sir"—"Yours Faithfully"—"We beg to acknowledge"—"Broken Orange Pekoe remained firm at yesterday's prices"—" … bound for Sydney and other Australian ports"—"At your earliest convenience"—"......... Calling at Port Said, Aden, and Colombo … "—"Yours Faithfully"—

In the city the flow of traffic, eastern and western continues without ceasing. The radio Station fills the air with market quotations Vessels leave the port for the four corners of the earth.

4.—The Apparel of a God: Andante: Allegro.

The Faith of the people remains. The peasant pauses on his way to the fields to lay an offering before the Buddha. The pilgrims are still moving in slow procession up the mountain. The Buddha looks down with serenity and compassion. At the shrine the dancers are being clothed with Jewellery symbolic of the attributes of the Buddha. The dance proceeds. Buddha looks on. Darkness falls. The palms again cover the screen. The land is covered with forest.


In view of the contradictory opinions held of the above film. "Salient" would welcome criticism of the above review.