Waiting to Become
Sri Lankan Filmmaker's Feature Debut A Profound Experience
Anura (Mahendra Perera), one of the main characters in Sri Lankan director Vimukthi Jayasundara's The Forsaken Land, mans a remote outpost, gun in hand. He has little to do but watch and wait. As it turns out, that appears to be his entire country's fate. Without becoming boring themselves, few movies are so attuned to the rhythm of tedium and depression. Jayasundara could have made a fascinating non-narrative experience; his film's first third comes close to being a plotless collection of scenery. However, The Forsaken Land, which arrives on DVD after a very cursory theatrical run in a few American cities in 2006, manages a fresh blend of formalism and humanism. It's been a long time since I've seen such a stunning debut, especially from a filmmaker still in his 20s.
To a large extent, laying out the plot of The Forsaken Land betrays the experience of watching it, but it may be helpful to go into it having some idea what will happen. It begins in the midst of a cease-fire between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers. Nevertheless, the army is still everywhere. In a small village, Anura lives with his wife, Lata (Nilupili Jayawardena), and sister Soma (Kaushalya Fernando). He works as a guard in the daytime, sharing his post and gun with an older man, Piyasiri (Hemasiri Liyanage). When he's at work, Lata conducts an affair with one of his friends. She's jealous of Soma, who works in a nearby town. The village falls under a strange mood: not at war, but hardly peaceful. Then corpses start appearing.
I don't want to romanticize Jayasundara as a Third World primitive--which he clearly isn't--but a certain degree of isolation may have its benefits. A filmmaker working in New York or Paris is drowning in images of his or her city, while Sri Lankan villagers may be starved for images of theirs. Even so, if there's any region The Forsaken Land shows any affinity with, it's Eastern Europe, particularly the Russia of Andrei Tarkovsky. Almost every scene in this movie is composed of just one shot. Each one plays like a mini-feature, often ending in a surprising place.
Voyeurism is a running motif in The Forsaken Land. Several times, characters watch each other have sex. Jayasundara uses landscapes to express his characters' point of view. At one point, he turns from a topless woman to the vast, arid field she surveys; at another, he cuts from a soldier's rambling story about the excitement of flying while stoned to a shot of the sky. These sequences hint at a spiritual yearning that's rarely fulfilled. The violence that Anura watches for does come, but not in the anticipated form one anticipates--Land's torture and suicide scenes are more jarring than they might be in a bloodier movie because they're so sudden. It's more concerned with long-term consequences than actions themselves.
The Forsaken Land synthesizes beauty and tension. The ever-present possibility of warfare prevents it from lapsing into mere nature porn. There's a clash between its avant-garde leanings and the demands of storytelling, with the former taking precedence. This approach doesn't always work to Jayasundara's benefit, but you come away with the impression that conventional narrative would betray the uniqueness of the experiences described in the movie. It carries a sense of place as indelible as any Gabriel García Márquez short story, perhaps all the more potent because you remember the texture of wind and the color of grass as much as the characters.
It's hard to imagine a work whose politics are so oblique--and anti-war--angering Sri Lankans to the point where Jayasundara decided to move to France, but unfortunately that's the case. You wonder whether he'll be able to continue working in his homeland, a "forsaken land" on the map of world cinema even for avid cinephiles. Made anywhere in the world, The Forsaken Land would be startlingly original; coming from Sri Lanka, it's a bold testimony that the nation has a right to a voice of its own on film.