Gamini Fonseka played a pivotal role in the Sinhala cinema. He was a veteran actor, director as well as a great figure in Sinhala cinematic world. He officially as well as unofficially directed films and did justice to cheap as well as classical films scripts. Today marks the thirteenth death anniversary of cinema idol Gamini and again the topic of conservation of Sinhala films has surfaced. In this project, Gamini Fonseka’s son Damith Fonseka takes a prominent role through Gamin Fonseka Foundation. Dr. Lester James Peries took a trailblazing effort to conserve films when the rest of the world paid least attention to this subject as far back as 1957. But his concept was shelved though Sinhala audio films completed 70 years now. Today, it has been turned to a reality. This interview is on that topic with Damith Fonseka.
Q: Can you please explain why you have been an active member in preserving Sinhala films in the recent past?
The main objective of founding the Gamini Fonseka Foundation was to conserve Sinhala films to the possible extent. But the foundation lacked the knowledge and techniques of preserving films. Only Dr. Nihalsinghe could help us. Some felt turning films into DVDs was the solution, some others opined reels properly stored was good-enough.
Initially, I started preserving films in DVDs. Later I came to know that there was an institution in India by the name the International Federation of Film Archive specializing in conserving films. They conducted a workshop on film conservation and I won a scholarship to participate in their first workshop in 2015. By then Shivendra Singh Dusgapoor who was a pioneer in conservation films in India, has conserved Lester James Peries’ film Nidhanaya.
Q: What is really wrong with our local film conservation?
Numerous number of Sinhala films have been destroyed due to want of conservation. Ten Sinhala films have been selected in 1990s as best films. I proposed to the then chairman of the Film Corporation, Deepal Chandraratne, to launch a project at least to preserve those ten films and Rs. 50 million was allocated in the budget to establish a studio to conserve films. In order to convince the importance of preserving films I invited Shivendra Singh Dushgapoor to deliver the Lester James Peiris felicitation speech.
As a first step, a section of the National Archives was reserved for this purpose by Dr. SaarojaWettasinge.We hope to continue this effort with the help the new chairman of the National Film Corporation, Sithendra Senaratne.
Q: What was your late father’s stance on film conservation?
When Dr. Peries highlighted this necessity, my father was keen on that issue. Had it been done then we could have saved many of our old good films. Conservation and shelving are two things. By stacking in shelves the films get exposed to the elements. Now out of over 1300 films we are left only with 295 films. About further 20 films can be found elsewhere. Our present effort is to preserve the existing 300 odd films for the future.
Q: Are there any outstanding films among the destroyed ones?
Yes, we have lost many beginning from KadawunuPoronduwa. There are box office winners and award winners among them. At present there is no proper list of screened films in any official institutions. The credible lists available are in the hands of some private collectors.
Q: Cannot you get help from private film collectors?
Some collectors claim that they have more than 450 films but we are not sure how well they are preserved as film reels tend to deteriorate due to chemicals reactions and others on transferring to DVDs.
Q: How many films directed by your late father are available for conservation?
Many films directed by my father are available but in some films he remained anonymous. The negative as well as the print of SagarayakMeda is nowhere to find. But from a VHS edition of the film we made a DVD. We couldn’t find a copy of Kotiwaligaya film. I intend to preserve the first film directed by my father, Parasathu Mal with the assistance of the producer, Chithra Balasooriya.
Q: What are the challenges in preserving local films?
Sadly, officials have not realized the importance of preserving works of art. But the Prime Minister is very keen in this matter. Government allocations essential for this project. Politicians, artists and general public should lend their support to this national endeavour.
Q: What is state-of-the-art techniques used in preserving films?
Digital preservation is the most reliable method which preserves a film for more than 30 – 60 years but it is a very costly method.