Vimukti Jayasundara's 'Forsaken Land'

The Forsaken Land (2005)

Vimukthi Jayasundara is the director of The Forsaken Land, which was awarded the Camera d'Or at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival. Jayasundara previously directed a documentary called The Land of Silence in 2001 and a short, Empty for Love, in 2002.

David Schwartz, chief curator of the Museum of the Moving Image, where The Forsaken Land was screened, had this to say: "While its haunting images evoke the films of Tarkovsky, and it has the laconic humor of Samuel Beckett, The Forsaken Land is the work of an important and original new film director."

This interview was conducted via telephone on June 27, 2006, while Jayasundara was in Paris.

What was the inspiration for your film The Forsaken Land? And did you have a particular audience in mind?

Not at all. This is my first feature film. Before I did this, I had made two films: one is a documentary and one is a short film about the conflict in Sri Lanka. The documentary is about disabled army soldiers, and while I was working on it, I recorded a lot of stories about the soldiers and their backgrounds, their families, and their experiences in the war.

By soldiers, you mean those in the Sri Lankan national army?

Yes, Sri Lankan army soldiers. Then I became very much interested in finding more information and going and visiting these areas. I wanted to make a film there, and I did a short film called Empty for Love. We shot the film in the border villages, the two frontiers between Tamil Tiger-controlled areas and Sri Lankan army-controlled areas. I thought that when I come to my first feature, I should go deeper to make a feature about the war in a different way. So that was the inspiration.

What about audience?

To be very frank, I did not have any experience with audiences for my last film, my short film. It just went to film festivals and things like that. So I did not really think about audience at all. I thought maybe I should make a film first to have a certificate for being qualified as a director. After having made two short films, I still wasn't qualified as a director, so I thought about making my first feature. To get a title called "director" is more important than anything else! So I made this film to get that title!

The film seems to waver between a comment on the human condition in general and on the condition of war. What do you think is the relation between the two?

Any war film, when you call it such - and we have seen thousands of war films coming from Hollywood or other parts of the world - is generally called an "action" film, as you know. But in my experience, war in Sri Lanka or elsewhere, there is not that kind of "action" in the war. So the war in action films is completely fabricated, fictionalized by the filmmakers. None of us experience the real war and the real results of the war in that way. So I thought of putting it a different way, by completely removing the subject called "action" from the film, but of course keeping the action that is there in day-to-day life, normal people, how they behave, how they act in normal life.

And what about the film being a comment on the human condition in general?

Can you explain what you are asking me to respond to?

The kind of alienation that your characters experience is of course, in a sense, particular to the situation of war/not-war they find themselves in, but it also seems to be far more generalizable to people in all sorts of contexts: the alienated relationships they have with one another, the isolation they experience, all of this seems to be a quite general problem. So to what extent do you think that the kinds of relations you were depicting could also be said to exist outside of the context of war?

Even if I were not making this film with war as the backdrop, I could make it somewhere else, that is for sure. This is the way I see human life. I could make this film in Paris and I would have these sorts of characters definitely, or in New York or New Delhi or elsewhere. I think that is the new condition of human being: disconnected, without any communication; even if we are building very sophisticated communication tools, there is still such a lack of communication as individual human beings. I think that's the main reason I put the characters in that way. It can happen in a war situation or anywhere in the world in different conditions.

Next: "We are all just waiting, killing time, being manipulated by the two parties."

You have said in an interview elsewhere that the film explores "the suspended state of being simultaneously without war and without peace." What does this state of suspension mean? And does your film not actually depict more menacing, ominous forms of violence associated with war than the typical war film?

The Sri Lankan war has been going on for more than 20 years. About four years ago, we had a ceasefire between the Tamil rebels and the Sri Lankan armed forces and after that, we see that the war continues in a different way. Still, for us, we don't have any hopes. We know what real war is about but today it has different manifestations. What was the action between the two parties that now it has become something else? They employ different tactics to use civilians for their own political aims, rather than losing battles or departing for frontiers. So it has become something else. In the last four years, it has not been a war, it is something more. It is very difficult to explain. It is something very different, without any solutions. We are just going through it, without any solutions, without any hopes of peace, or even of very formal war, it is just between two extreme situations. We have hopes for nothing. We are all just waiting, killing time, being manipulated by the two parties.

Would you agree that you depict violence at all? And if so, what differentiates this violence from the kind of violence one typically sees in war movies?

It is very difficult to comment. I should be clear about what I mean by "action": when you are glorifying the war, you start enjoying the adventures of war. Not maybe the violence, not maybe the bloodshed but you start being fascinated by how it functions, how it works, glorifying all this. I am definitely rejecting all that in this film. You have to deal with violence. You need to show violence sometimes. I am not simply opposed to showing any violence in film. You just have to use it in a very different way, so it is not possible to enjoy the violence in the film. It should affect you in such a way that you reject that violence.

You have also said that you wanted to examine "emotional isolation in a world where war, peace and God have become abstract notions." How does God figure in this equation? Even the title of your film in English is The Forsaken Land. Forsaken by whom? By God? And if so, could it be said that your film is a kind of prayer?

Yes. When you see the film, one thing you feel is the absence of spirituality. There is no belief in anything. That is when you start to feel empty, to turn to God for help. One of the characters says that she should die in a land where God exists. That is exactly because it has been abandoned, it has been forsaken by all kinds of spiritual beliefs. It does not have any dialogue with that. Whom does one turn to for belief?

In a country like Sri Lanka, there is very much belief in Buddhism or Hinduism or Christianity or whatever, but still this landscape is missing spiritual belief and faith, so it is a kind of prayer, yes, you are right, and I am asking to whom can we turn for help.

The only other time that God is explicitly invoked in the film is when the soldier says that being in a helicopter smoking a joint is like "being fucked up the ass by a god", and is then reprimanded by his friend for blasphemy, in response to which the soldier defends himself by pointing to his acts of piety. What is the relation to the sacred that you wanted to evoke here?

When the soldier says that, he is trying to explain how he enjoys being in the air, flying. On the other hand, he definitely has a connection with his belief in a god. He wants to have a much closer conversation with God, or to have a much closer relationship with God. He tries to say in his own way that he could make love to God, to have something physical with God. That is how he tries to express his desire. So I tried to say when you really badly need something for your spirituality, when you need to believe, when you need to do something, when you need much more than what you have, I think you start to ask questions. When you want to believe in God, that is the point at which you can think, "I am ready to make love to God."

Have you seen the film Teorema by Pasolini? It is a story about how God suddenly comes to the city, to one very bourgeois family. They have a young man, who starts being in love with everybody, and the whole family starts going crazy, and they start to feel guilty about how they live. Then suddenly this young man goes missing and the family starts searching for him all over the world. They start going crazy, in fact.

So I thought of something like this. When you really badly need something, you start to think in very abstract ways. For example, if I want to see my father, and if my father rejects me, someone whom I respect a lot, a point will come when I think I am going to attack him, but only to be in love with him, to be close to him. So it is something like this that the character expresses.

So in the film, the character with the lack of spirituality is asking in a very provocative way to be close to God. He badly needs this connection.

Do you see your work as overtly political?

Not at all.

Do you think other people might see it that way?

Well, as far as I know now, I think it is very unfortunate that where we come from, a country like Sri Lanka, or Asian countries in general, everybody in the West expects our work to be ideological or explains our work in a political way. So this is a sad thing. European filmmakers, or Western filmmakers in general, are just seen in terms of the art they produce, whereas the work of filmmakers from anywhere else in the world is always seen politically or ideologically. Why not in terms of art? This is unfortunate.

Who are the main influences in your work?

I am going to list some people, but none of them are considered political filmmakers. That will also clarify what I was saying before. I have been very much inspired by the work of Andrei Tarkovsky and Ingmar Bergman and Satyajit Ray and Paolo Pasolini. These few filmmakers are very important to me. And of course other contemporary filmmakers who I really admire: Abbas Kiarostami, Tsai Ming-Liang, Ritwik Ghatak. I like all kinds of filmmakers, but these are the main ones. More than anyone else I think I am inspired by Ghatak.

What tradition of filmmaking do you see yourself as belonging to, if any?

I know that when I start to write, or when I start to think about a film, I know I have a thousand things behind me, all sorts of ideas and theories, filmmakers, all coming like ghosts behind me. Still I don't have any kind of tradition that I am going to follow in my work. Sometimes they can appear, I don't know how they are going to appear though, which kind of tradition is going to command me to do my work. I am totally free and am just writing and making films.

What projects are you working on now?

Right now I am writing another feature film that will be shot in Sri Lanka at the end of this year, hopefully in December 2006 or January of 2007. Then I have another proposal from New York City. We are still in negotiations; we don't know how it will end up.

Interview conducted by Nermeen Shaikh of Asia Society.