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Midweek Review

War as a way-of-Life

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Helene Weigel Vera Tenschert

Brecht’s Mother Courage and her Children:

by Laleen Jayamanne

“Like the war to nourish you?
Have to feed it something too.”
Mother Courage

Chaplin on Seeing Brecht’s Galileo

Charlie Chaplin had dinner with Brecht’s long-term musical collaborator Hans Eisler, after the premier of The Life of Galileo in 1947 in LA. The play was very well attended by leading artistes and intellectuals, some of whom worked for Hollywood at the time. It included German Jewish and gentile refugees from fascist Europe. Over dinner, Chaplin told Eisler that he would have liked a bit more ‘drama’ and that Brecht could have ‘mounted’ it differently. Eisler (who was familiar with Brecht’s radical work in Weimar Germany in the 20s), explained to him that Brecht never wanted to ‘mount’ things. American theatre critics from Variety and New York Times also complained that the production was ‘too flat and colourless.’ They thought the play was not theatrical enough, not ‘dramatic.’ In this piece, I will discuss the formal features of Brecht’s epic theatre (use of narration, scene construction, dialogue and acting), which Brecht thought was a form more suited to a scientific age of reason than the more emotional form of traditional dramatic theatre.

Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children; A Chronicle of the Thirty Year War, is a parable relevant to our moment of world history as well. It’s based on a character called ‘Courage, an Adventuress,’ in the 17th Century picaresque novel, Simplicissimus by Hans von Grimmelhausen. In Lanka it was first produced in English, in the 60s by Ernest MacIntyre, and, soon after in Sinhala as, Diriya Athi Mawa. Written in exile in 1939, the year Hitler invaded Poland, triggering the second World War, it was about another devastating war in Europe, the Thirty-Year Religious Wars (1618-1648), between the Catholics and the Protestants. Now we have yet another European war, between Ukraine and Russia, with no end in sight, which has already begun to affect global trade in essentials and much else. The flow of refugees and the scale of non-stop destruction of Ukraine by Russia is now broadcast daily on our TV screens creating a new ‘cold-war.’ The polarising American slogan for this war is ‘Democracy versus Autocracy.’ There is even talk of limited nuclear strikes but hardly any diplomatic solutions. Lanka also has had her own experience of a 30-year civil war whose wounds have not all healed because they remain unacknowledged.

Brecht’s 1949 production of the play in East Belin (with the nucleus which became the Berliner Ensemble in East Germany), within the Soviet Union, is celebrated in theatre history not only for the written play itself but also for the singular Epic staging and Epic acting of Helene Weigel as Mother Courage. She was an Austrian-Jewish actress and Brecht’s wife and also, according to him, a rare ‘epic actor.’ More of that later. The 1957 Berliner Ensemble production of it (after Brecht died in ‘56), again with Helene Weigel as Mother Courage, is on YouTube, now with English subtitles, an extraordinary chance for Lankan theatre folk to study her celebrated performance. It’s nearly four hours long and worth watching for people serious about studying, Epic Theatre, acting and staging.

The main set in the play is Mother Courage’s large wagon on wheels, ‘a cross between a military vehicle and a General Store’ servicing the different armies fighting in the Thirty-Year War, which decimated the population of Germany, destroying villages, towns and livestock. She follows the armies as they are her main source of income, she feeds on the war, so she needs it. It makes good business sense to her. Brecht hammers this point repeatedly. In the opening scene, the cart rolls on to the stage, drawn by her two sons, Eilif and Swiss-Cheese, because their horse has died. A revolving stage floor adds to the sense of dynamic curving movement of the large heavy wagon as it creeks and groans on to the stage with Mother Courage lounging on it, singing with her mute daughter seated beside her playing a Jewish harp. The rhythm of the song, the marching gait of the sons pulling the wagon, is robust, light-hearted even, despite the war. War for them is certainly a way of life, quite normalised.

Theatre for a New Scientific Age

In this piece, I want to build on the ideas developed in my three previous pieces on Brecht for The Island in two ways. First, by exploring Brecht’s idea of an ‘epic’ rather than a ‘dramatic’ structure, in his episodic scene construction and narration. Second, Brecht’s famously difficult idea of ‘epic acting’ will be explored by focusing on Helena Weigel’s celebrated performance as Mother Courage; she did not seek a response of empathy (identification and sympathy), from the audience. Instead, she performed in a manner that made her appear astonishing, strange though she was always believable as an efficient, robust petit-bourgeoise trader. Brecht’s carefully thought-out reasons for developing this mode of theatre will also be discussed.

Given that the European war lasted 30 years, Brecht presents its long duration by focusing on specific years without following a chronological progression. He calls the play a ‘chronicle of the thirty year war,’ so it jumps from 1626 to ‘29 for example, and ends the play in the middle of the war more than 10 years before it actually ceased. In this way, he is able to create a large number of episodic scenes whose duration varies wildly. Some even where the curtain opens and closes within minutes! So, he frees himself from chronological, causal, historical narration, and is able to build a freer sense of the relationship between one scene and another. This way, he can abstract events and produce his own views of that war without being tied to chronological history. This juxtaposition of scenes is what Brecht calls montage, using a film editing terminology. This freedom derived from its episodic structure is vital for the spectator who is invited to make the connections by learning to think in the theatre and not only just to feel with the characters. Mother Courage herself does not invite identification. she is neither heroic nor pathetic. She is dogged, living at all cost, unwittingly even at the expense of her three children. She is called ‘courage’ not because she is heroic, but because once she followed the army into dangerous territory because she had to sell a large stock of bread before it turned mouldy. Her business is with the army, regardless of which side it is, as long as she can sell her goods. Profit is the motif.

Brecht’s theatrical theory is superbly edited in Brecht on Theatre by John Willet and is highly readable, enjoyable and useful for understanding 20th Century radical European political epic theatre. Brecht provided the following model, laying out the ‘changes of emphasis as between dramatic and epic theatre.’ They are not opposites but it’s a matter of what needs to be emphasised to create a rational spectator who can evaluate what’s being presented without being emotionally swayed. This does not mean there is no feeling in the play. But rather, that reason and understanding are emphasised, paramount. (See table)

Brecht thought very highly of Charles Laughton’s performance of Galileo Galilei. He has written admiringly of Laughton’s work ethic and the way he understood the aesthetic of the play and performed the role in an ‘epic’, rather than in a purely ‘dramatic,’ that is to say, emotional, empathetic manner. This new element is probably what Chaplin and the American theatre critics didn’t appreciate. Joseph Losey, who directed the play with close input from Brecht, had plans to make a film of it, but because of the communist scare Laughton had backed out. Losey did make the film much later, but with the dramatic actor Topol, who played the lead role in the musical Fidler on the Roof. For students of theatre, it would be very instructive to study his highly emotional film version of presenting Galileo (which is on YouTube), and then read Brecht’s ideas on a cooler, more ‘distanced’ mode of performance which he says Laughton provided, which he named ‘epic acting’.

Helena Weigel as Epic Actress

Similarly, here’s Brecht describing Weigel as a rare, exemplary epic actress in her role as Jocasta’s maid in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex.

“… she announced the death of her mistress by calling out her ‘dead, dead, Jocasta has died,’ without any sorrow but so firmly and definitely that the bare facts of her mistress’s death carried more weight at that precise moment than could have been generated by any grief of her own. She did not abandon her voice to horror, but perhaps her face, for she used white make-up to show the impact which a death makes on all who are present at it.”

He says that Weigel as Jocasta’s maid didn’t mix up her own emotions and try to make the spectator ‘punch drunk with feeling.’ But rather, her cold delivery left room for the spectator to understand the magnitude of the action of suicide, as a moral decision. The suicide of the queen Mother (who had unwittingly committed incest with her own son, Oedipus, after she had unknowingly married him), was not made into an occasion for new sensations.

Brecht again on what epic acting should be:

“Witty. Ceremonious. Ritual. Spectator and actor ought not to approach one another but to move apart. Each ought to move away from himself. Otherwise, the element of terror necessary to all recognition is lacking.”

Mother Courage’s Silent Scream

In theatre studies, Helena Weigel’s ‘silent scream’ is legendary, a part of her epic performance. As she lives off of the war, she considers peace bad for her business. And in the play when someone exclaims, ‘peace has broken out!’ Mother Courage is upset because she had just stocked up on new supplies and says it will now go to waste. This is epic dialogue, it makes one pause.

When Mother Courage realises that her son’s death (off-stage), is imminent she stands up saying:” I think I bargained for too long,’ and slowly sits down on a stool. Her body is tense. And as she hears the volley of bullets executing her son, her body shudders, arching back as though she was shot, her mouth opening wide into a snarl, letting out a silent scream. The gesture is so fleeting that we can miss it. But this silent cry carries huge weight. We still hear its reverberations. But it doesn’t make us empathise with Mother Courage, rather, we see her in all her animal drive to survive at all cost. But at that very moment when like an animal she instinctively bares her teeth to scream, she stifles the cry as only a human animal could. The silent-scream is a complex epic gesture. It encodes her contradictory life of sustaining her family by living off of war.

Because of her wheeling and dealing and haggling after a good bargain, each of her children dies. Brecht shows clearly the link between her decision to carry out a business deal and the loss of each of her children. When she is shown Swiss Cheese’s corpse, she is not able to even acknowledge that it is her son, as doing so would compromise her and Katrina. So, his body is thrown into a mass grave and Mother Courage turns her face away from us as the curtain falls in silence.

It is not that we don’t feel any emotion but rather we also feel the moment in all its inarticulate horror; we observe the phenomenon of this woman, her instinctual drive to survive at all cost. Once all her children are dead, she straps herself on to the wagon and slowly hunching down like a very old woman, drags it along alone, doggedly following the army as she has always done. She doesn’t learn anything, but it’s we who do. It’s not that we don’t feel, we do feel an immense sense of desolation for this myopic and hugely energetic woman who still lives off of the war, the end of which is a generation away. Meanwhile, Germany is laid waste. In 1939, Brecht looked back at history to understand the emerging catastrophe in Europe. He directed the play in East Berlin in ’49, where the rubble of WW2 was not all cleared. This play feels so current now for Europe deeply enmeshed in an unwinnable, seemingly endless war which has global repercussions.

Brecht was against tragedy which he called Aristotelian drama with its famous tragic heroes and their profound ethical epiphanies when facing cruel Destiny. Instead, he formulated his theory of modern epic theatre for a scientific age of reason, so that an audience would learn to observe characters as epic constructs and historical events in microcosm, and learn from them. He wanted the audience to understand the world through the way in which epic characters interacted in episodic scenes. He used either a chorus or projected intertitles to create an epic narration to narrate complex historical forces which simply couldn’t be dramatized by individual characters alone. Within such a rich epic structure the spectator learns in a relaxed way, how to balance emotions with understanding. The emotion that Brecht was especially suspicious of in theatre was empathy, which is an Aristotelian value. Brecht believed that by emotionally identifying with characters in an empathetic manner we lose our capacity to evaluate their behaviour. What he wanted was a process he called ‘distanciation,’ so that we don’t simply cry and say, ‘Aiyo, ane- Amme!’ and go home wiping a tear or two. He wanted a theatre fit for the modern scientific age, providing spectators with a greater understanding of political forces at play in normalising war within capitalism. Religion is the ritualised camouflage for gaining territorial political power, in the play.

So, soon after Mother Courage lets out her silent scream the stage is blacked-out for about eight seconds. When it opens for the next episode in full bright light, Mother Courage is still seated on the stool but there is no carry-over from the previous episode. As a cunning business woman, she is facing another moment of survival with quick-wittedness mixed with acute pain. Weigel’s Mother Courage is not played as a sentimental maternal figure or the ‘eternal sorrowful mother.’ She is not part of ‘the little people’ helplessly caught in the cross-fire, say like the poor peasants who appear in the play. But rather, she actively feeds off of the war as a petite bourgeois trader. This class-analysis is important for Brecht, who read Marx as a young student and continued his research into the history of capitalism and socialist politics as a playwright.

Joe Abyewickrama; A Lankan Epic Actor?

Prasanna Withanage in his Purhanda Kaluwara (Darkness at Fullmoon), brilliantly created the character of Wannihamy, as the blind father of a dead soldier. Joe Abyewickrama played this role in an epic mode. He didn’t cry out when his son’s sealed-coffin was brought home to his hut unlike his daughter. He was stoic like Mother Courage when her son’s body was brought in for her to identify. Wannihami, in his unique situation simply listened carefully to all the sounds and through his quality of attention, we too were given a glimpse of the terrible cost of the civil war on an impoverished Sinhala family and much more. Joe didn’t play for empathy, his restraint, enhanced by his blindness (a form of Brechtian distanciation), showed us and taught us in an unusual way about the terror of the civil war and of state terror, which Sinhala folk are belatedly experiencing now, not for the first time of course, in the South also. The sealed coffin, solemnly draped in the Lion flag, did not hold the corpse of the ‘Rana-viru’ or ‘tragic-hero’ son, but a banana trunk. The hero’s coffin, too big for the little hut, provides food for thought.

Similarly, Brecht’s play continues to nourish our thinking as we experience unending wars and State terror. Brecht and Weigel and Joe offer Lankan playwrights and filmmakers very rich resources to learn from, to make theatre and film that speaks to Lanka’s complex history and contemporary ongoing struggles, so that we might learn and understand in an enjoyable way. Brecht (always full of surprises) says theatre must be entertaining and should be performed in a relaxed manner. Go figure! Look at the many photographs and the ’57 production itself by the Berliner Ensemble now online.



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Midweek Review

GR’s exit and developing crisis: Different interpretations

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By Shamindra Ferdinando

President’s Counsel Manohara de Silva recently questioned the failure on the part of the cash-strapped Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) to provide electricity, without interruption, at least during the GCE Advanced Level examination.

The outspoken lawyer raised the issue with the writer, on January 23, the day the delayed examination began at 2,200 centres, with 331,709 students sitting the examination, countrywide. It was, originally, to commence on Dec. 05, 2022.

The constitutional expert pointed out how even in the implementation of daily power cuts, the CEB, obviously, discriminated against the population, at the behest of the political leadership, by excluding selected areas from, what he called, the daily scourge of living without electricity. Pointing out the responsibility of the media to take a strong stand on this issue, the President’s Counsel said that certain areas, categorized as ‘VIP,’ received a 24-hour, uninterrupted, power supply.

The CEB resorted to daily power cuts, last year, after a long time, during President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s time, as the economic crisis gripped the country, with the government unable to pay for the import of even basic needs, like gas, fuel, medicines, etc. At one time, there were 10- to 12-hour power cuts. The then Power and Energy Minister, Udaya Gammanpila, is on record as having said that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa ignored his plea for immediate small power cuts, to conserve what we had, at the beginning of the total breakdown, in January 2022, to lessen the full impact of the developing crisis hitting us at once down the road. Attorney-at-law Gammanpila pointed out that the President’s failure finally led to 12-13 hour power cuts, leading to the explosion of public anger, in the last week of March, 2022.

The continuing power crisis reflected the overall waste, corruption, irregularities, mismanagement, at every level, not only at the CEB, but the entire public sector, as well, over the past several decades.

The intervention made by the Human Rights Commission (HRCSL) last Wednesday (25) to compel the CEB to ensure uninterrupted power supply, failed.

In spite of Commissioner, Dr. M.H. Nimal Karunasiri, of the HRCSL, on its behalf, proudly claiming that it had secured a consensus with all stakeholders to suspend power cuts, ignoring all that, the CEB went ahead with the routine electricity supply interruptions.

The power crisis, coupled with an explosive cocktail of issues caused by Sri Lanka’s failure to meet its international loan commitments, contributed to the further deterioration of the country’s economy. The crisis affected Sri Lanka in the first quarter of 2021, with the Easter Sunday carnage, and the pandemic, already having done much damage, especially to the vital tourism sector, among others, but President Rajapaksa’s government ignored the threat.

Appearing in a live programme, telecast simultaneously, both on stateowned and private television networks, the Governor of the Central Bank, Dr. Nandalal Weerasinghe, recently alleged the then government hid Sri Lanka’s bankruptcy status before its inability to service foreign debt was officially acknowledged in early April last year. Having accepted the hot seat, in early April, last year, Dr. Weerasinghe announced suspension of repayment of loans, temporarily. In spite of progress made, the IMF USD 2.9 bn extended loan facility remained yet to be implemented.

What really caused the economic meltdown? Could President Gotabaya Rajapaksa averted public humiliation if he sought IMF’s intervention in early 2020? Who prevented Gotabaya Rajapaksa from doing so, as Sri Lanka had knelt before the IMF on 16 previous occasions? His elder brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, who held the Finance portfolio, could have advised the President. Didn’t Premier Mahinda Rajapaksa advise his brother in this regard? And what was the role played by former Treasury Secretary, Dr. P.B. Jayasundera, not just another run-of-the-mill economist. Having been seconded to the Treasury, from the Central Bank, from the time Ronnie de Mel was the Finance Minister, his exceptional talents were tapped by the Finance Ministry, even under President Premadasa, when R. Paskaralingam, of the Pandora Papers’ notoriety, was the Treasury Secretary. And he continued to serve the Treasury, under successive Presidents, thereafter, especially in the hot seat, as the Finance Ministry Secretary, in one of the most difficult periods in the country’s history, during the final phase of the conflict, when it was a fight to a finish with the LTTE, especially after President Mahinda Rajapaksa telling the then British Foreign Secretary, David Milliband, and his French counterpart, Bernard Couchner, to get lost when they went all the way down to Embilipitiya to tell Mahinda to stop the war to enable them to rescue Velupillai Prabhakaran, and what was left of his terrorist movement, by a flotilla of vessels they were ready to dispatch to the coast of Mullaitivu. PBJ, no doubt, ensured that no expense was spared when waging the most costly war of attrition, while keeping the economy humming with massive infrastructure projects, like building expressways, Hambantota Port, Mattala International Airport, etc. So it is quite puzzling why PBJ failed to guide President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on the path of correct economic decisions. Surely it can’t be due to him past the retirement age.

After being Secretary to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, during this turbulent period, Dr. PBJ was asked to go in Dec. 2021, when the former’s presidency had suffered irrevocable damage.

Leaving all the above aside, it must be stated here that whatever disagreements, or misunderstandings we may have had in the past, with New Delhi and Beijing, we should be eternally grateful to both India and China for being unwaveringly behind us in that most difficult final phase of the war.

Ex-CP Chief D.E.W. Gunasekera recently discussed the downfall of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, after having polled a staggering 6.9 mn votes at the last presidential election, in Nov 2019. President Rajapaksa resigned on July 14, 2022, in the wake of snowballing violent protests that began on March 31, outside his private residence, at Pangiriwatta, Mirihana.

In a brief but fiery speech, the former Marxist minister explained how the wartime Defence Secretary caused the rapid deterioration of his government for want of a sound economic strategy. The retired public servant, who served as a lawmaker (2004-2015), found fault with President Rajapaksa for the ongoing political-economic-social crisis.

The veteran politician recalled how he suggested to the then Premier Mahinda Rajapaksa to advice brother Gotabaya to seek Chinese assistance to overcome the impending financial crisis. The outspoken politician blamed it all on the economic reasons.

Gunasekera said so at the opening of Eastern School of Political Studies, at the newly renovated CP party office, at Dr. N.M. Perera Mawatha, Borella, with the participation of Chinese International Department Vice Minister, Chen Zhou, and Acting Chinese Ambassador, Hu Wei.

Declaring that he himself warned President Gotabaya Rajapaksa of the impending crisis and provided a recovery plan in the run up to the last presidential election, held on Nov. 16, 2019, Gunasekera accused the fallen President of turning a blind eye.

The ex-minister placed the blame squarely on President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

A different interpretation

Derana Chief, Dilith Jayaweera, at one time, one of the closest associates of ousted President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in a YouTube interview with Eraj Weeraratne, discussed political developments, since 2018, leading to a violent public protest movement that forced Gotabaya Rajapaksa out of office. Jayaweera, who is also the Chairperson of the George Steuart Group, as well as George Steuart Finance Limited, squarely blamed the Rajapaksa family, including Gotabaya, for the turbulent end to his rule.

Responding to a Weeraratne’s query, Jayaweera, declared lawmaker Namal Rajapaksa had no political future. The outspoken entrepreneur was unhesitant. Asserting twice President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s son, Namal, currently a member of Parliament, representing one-time Rajapaksa bastion, the Hambantota district, has lost his bearings, Jayaweera questioned the young politician’s sincerity.

Jayaweera didn’t mince his words when he declared that having failed to deprive Gotabaya Rajapaksa of an opportunity to contest the 2019 Presidential Election, the one-time first family worked overtime to undermine his authority at every level. The first family went to the extent of supporting the ‘GotaGoHome’ campaign that compelled the President to give up power, without a fight.

Jayaweera attributed to Mahinda Rajapaksa’s second son, Yoshitha (formerly of the Navy) with #GotaGoHome# hashtag that became the clarion call of the high profile protest campaign to oust the previous President.

That tagline doesn’t belong to Aragalaya, Jayaweera declared, alleging that it grew out of the former first family’s inability to stomach Gotabaya Rajapaksa exercising executive power.

The controversial political strategist revealed the ex-first family’s angry reaction to his close relationship with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. “They believed I was trying to move the President out of the family’s orbit. But, the people wanted a Rajapaksa who didn’t represent the interests of the family.” Jayaweera said.

The intrepid local entrepreneur is convinced President Gotabaya Rajapaksa couldn’t overcome the combined challenge posed by the Rajapaksa family.

Responding to another rapid-fire question, Jayaweera explained how the Rajapkasa family thwarted President Rajapaksa’s move to appoint senior public servant, Anura Dissanayake, as his Secretary. But, the Rajapaksa family forced their loyalist Gamini Senarath, who had been Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Secretary, on President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, following the exit of PBJ, Jayaweera claimed. According to him, that was definitely the worst example of the Rajapaksa’s family’s interference that rapidly weakened Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s presidency.

The appointment of Dr. Jayasundera, as President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s Secretary, should be examined against the backdrop of Jayaweera’s disclosure that Gotabaya Rajapaksa hadn’t been so critical of any other individual during private conversations he had with him.

Cardinal sin

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s cardinal sin was nothing but the enactment of the 20th Amendment to the Constitution, Jayaweera declared. That controversial piece of legislature created an extremely hostile political environment and gradually weakened President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s authority, Jayaweera said, recalling how Basil Rajapaksa forced his way into Parliament, on the SLPP National List, regardless of political consequences.

Jayaweera said that he received an assurance from President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in the presence of SLPP National List MP, Gevindu Cumaratunga, that enactment of the 20th Amendment at the expense of the 19th A was not meant for Basil Rajapaksa’s re-entry into Parliament. “President Gotabaya Rajapaksa didn’t keep his promise. Therefore, he should be accountable for the subsequent developments which preceded the demise of his political authority.”

Jayaweera explained how the Rajapaksas interpreted Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s victory at the 2019 presidential poll for their advantage. “The family asserted that Gotabaya Rajapaksa received a staggering 6.9 mn votes due to Mahinda Rajapaksa’s popularity. So, the family asserted that the new President should pursue their agenda. The family appointed Dr. Jayasundera as the Presidential Secretary.

Basil Rajapaksa believed he should be able to control Parliament. Basil Rajapaksa justified his overall political authority on the basis his SLPP secured a near 2/3 majority in Parliament, in addition to Opposition support that underlined their supremacy.”

Jayaweera described how President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s decision to take up residence at Pangiriwatte, Mirihana, do away with gaudy practice of hanging pictures of the President in government buildings, excessive use of vehicles and, most significantly, approval of unsolicited bids, angered the former first family. Those who immensely benefited from such ‘unsolicited bids’ reacted angrily, he said.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s actions jolted racketeers, Jayaweera alleged, pointing out that the new leader quickly lost support within the Cabinet-of-Ministers, by denying those corrupt elements an opportunity to make money, through the promotion of unsolicited bids. They couldn’t bear the shock of Cabinet papers submitted through the family or the intervention of the family being rejected, Jayaweera said, alleging that those who lived off such racketeering spearheaded the campaign against President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

The ‘Aragalaya’ entered the scene much later and exploited the situation to the hilt as the government parliamentary group quite conveniently abandoned President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Those present in Parliament didn’t challenge SJB MP Harin Fernando when he ridiculed the President repeating the ‘Sir fail’ mantra, Jayaweera said.

The parliamentary group, particularly those corrupt in the Cabinet, felt there was no point in defending a President who didn’t allow them to make money.

Jayaweera also ridiculed the inclusion of four persons who wore kurahan satakaya (maroon shawl) among President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s Cabinet. Jayaweera questioned the justification of bestowing five Cabinet portfolios on Namal Rajapaksa.

Relationship with JVP

The Derana Chief discussed a range of other issues, including his long standing relationship with the JVP, subsequent disputes with the Marxist party, and differences with the current leadership.

Dilith Jayaweera seems to be on a collision course with JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake, especially over allegations directed at him as regards corruption in the procurement of antigen kits and hotel quarantine process during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Denying any wrongdoing on his part in spite of his close relationship with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Jayaweera declared his readiness to battle it out on a public platform. While acknowledging that his enterprises handled procurement of antigen kits and hotel quarantine process, Jayaweera challenged the JVP leader Dissanayake to prove publicly how he engaged in corrupt practices.

Jayaweera gave an open undertaking to personally lead JVP’s Local Government polls campaign if the record could be set straight by such a debate.

Recalling his close contacts with the JVP in the past and him having participated in their well-known five classes’ indoctrination programme to all new comers, Jayaweera disclosed how he spearheaded Mahinda Rajapaksa’s 2005 presidential election campaign in which the Marxist party played a significant role. Slain Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar’s residence had been their meeting point where they discussed political strategy. Wimal Weerawansa had been the JVP representative at such meetings on some occasions, Jayaweera said.

Reference was made to the JVP split in the wake of the then Somawansa Amarasinghe led party declaring its intention to vote against the 2008 budget. Had that happened, the military campaign would have been derailed, Jayaweera said, comparing the JVP’s political strategy with that of the UNP.

“At a time, the vast majority of Sri Lankans desired the eradication of the LTTE, the JVP adopted a strategy that clearly aligned with the UNP’s treacherous approach,” Jayaweera said. Reference was made to the then Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and his MPs, Ravi Karunanayake, Lakshman Kiriella and the late Mangala Samaraweera questioning the military strategy and even the competence of the then Commander of the Army, Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka.

Jayaweera commented on a possible deal the JVP had with some party while referring to the availability of large scale NGO funding for those who undermined the war effort.

Recalling the success of his high profile ‘Api Wenuwen Api’ campaign in support of the war effort, particularly meant to attract the youth to join the armed forces, Jayaweera also criticized the JVP strategy towards the end of its second rebellion 1987-1990 when it targeted those in the socialist camp as it was being decimated by the then government death squads.

Answering questions regarding Derana coverage as well as editorial policy of his daily and weekly newspapers, Jayaweera emphasized that he never interfered with them under any circumstances. The media mogul pointed out how Derana TV and newspapers followed different policies while reminding of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s angry reaction to their reportage of developments taking place. “Our reportage reflected the reality. We couldn’t save the government,” he said.

Jayaweera discussed how his strategy differed from that of late Raja Mahendran of the Capital Maharaja Group. Although TNL was launched before Sirasa, the latter received the attention, Jayaweera said, emphasizing Raja Mahendran’s steadfast policy that the owner of the private channel controlled the news content.

Pressed for further explanation, Jayaweera acknowledged that he always exploited situations and created an environment necessary to influence the media. “That strategy is meant to inspire all media, not only Derana,” Jayaweera said.

Jayaweera and Weeraratne also discussed the simmering controversy over the JVP having as much as Rs 8 bn in funds as alleged by Jayaweera, with Derana Chief stressing that whatever the counter arguments the fact remains the JVP had substantial amount of funding. Questioning the credibility of lawmaker Anura Kumara Dissanayake against the backdrop of a section of the media highlighting lies propagated by the JVP leader, Jayaweera declared his readiness to help the party. But, that would depend on the JVPers willingness to appear with him in a live debate to clear the whole gamut of issues at hand.

Jayaweera also recalled the allegations pertaining to the procurement of antigen test kits directed at him by lawmaker Rajapaksa. Dismissing Namal Rajapaksa’s allegations as irrelevant, Jayaweera stressed that MP Anura Kumara Dissanayake should be given an opportunity to rectify his mistakes.

Jayaweera recalled his close association with Dissanayake at the time the latter served as the Agriculture Minister of then President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga led UPFA-JVP ‘Parivasa’ government. A smiling Jayaweera said though the JVP wanted to build 1,000 new tanks, it couldn’t complete at least one properly. Declaring he accompanied Dissanayake to various parts of the country,

Jayaweera acknowledged that he managed that media campaign, too.

At the conclusion of perhaps the most important interview that dealt with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s unceremonious exit from politics, Jayaweera commented on an often asked query whether Aragalaya was a conspiracy?

External intervention

Declaring that Gotabaya Rajapaksa had to give up political power not because of him, Jayaweera recalled how he warned in 2008 of the impending economic crisis and Dr. Jayasundera’s role in it. That warning was issued at the launch of Sinhala translation of John Perkins’s ‘Confessions of an Economic Hitman,’ Jayaweera said, declaring that the former first family initiated the conspiracy that was subsequently exploited to the hilt by various interested parties, including Western powers.

There cannot be any dispute over how Gotabaya Rajapaksa was derailed and who contributed to that despicable strategy. Perhaps, social media influencer, who interviewed him should have asked Jayaweera about a few other issues that ruined the once much respected Defence Secretary.

The crisis created cannot be discussed leaving out the ill-fated fertilizer ban (2021), catastrophic cancellation of the Light Train Transit (LRT) project funded by Japan(2020), allegations directed at Presidential Secretary P.B. Jayasundera and Prime Minister’s Secretary Gamini Senarath (both denied these accusations) pertaining to procurement of fertiliser from India and China, respectively and the failure on the government’s part to implement recommendations made by the Presidential Commission of Inquiry into 2019 Easter Sunday carnage.

The writer remembers how he ran into Jayaweera and Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the Bishop’s House in the run up to 2019 presidential election when the latter visited Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith to assure that justice would be done.

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Midweek Review

Notes towards a politics and aesthetics of film:

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‘Face Cover’ by Ashfaque Mohamed

“Black cat, at the tip of my fingers pulsates poetry,

Desiring hands, yours, nudgingly pluck those roses of mine

In the soft light of the moon

The dreams we picked from the foaming edges of waves of the sea.”

Jusla/Salani (in Face Cover)

by Laleen Jayamanne

Asifa, a young girl, and her elderly mother, living in Kattankudy, Baticaloa, are two fictional characters at the centre of Ashfaque Mohamed’s quietly powerful first feature film, titled Face Cover, which just premiered at the 2023 Jaffna International Film Festival (JIFF). As the President of the international jury judging the films in this year’s debut film competition at the JIFF (but on zoom from Australia), I have seen some highly sophisticated films from Bangladesh and India (the winners), immensely enjoyable and informative, but have chosen, for the purposes of this article, to write on Ashfaque’s thought provoking film that didn’t make it into the debut film competition. My decision to do so is part of my own politics as a film scholar who has, over the decades, often highlighted and laboured over films that may not necessarily be popular, or current, or even easily understood, for that matter. Eye-catching films often are popular, and many critics spend a lot of energy writing about them as is their prerogative. I, too, do that when moved, as I have been by Baz Luhrmann’s hugely popular ELVIS. But, it’s important to me, as a Lankan-Australian film critic/scholar, to focus also on work that at first may appear opaque, may not fit into my own limited viewing habits and preferences, first and foremost. This way, I learn to learn from film even as I grow old. Face Cover has uncovered for me micro-histories of ethnic relations in Lanka in astonishing and moving ways. It’s certainly a film for our times, and in my opinion, Ashfaque is a young Lankan filmmaker of great promise. It is also heartening to note that he is cine-literate and (as he says), is self-taught as a filmmaker.

While the opening and closing screenings of the festival were at the Cinemas Movie Theatre, the rest of the festival films were shown at the University of Jaffna, largely due to the ongoing grave financial crisis affecting the country as a whole. I gather it’s the only film festival held in Sri Lanka, continuously, since the civil war ended, after 30 years, and is an admirable institution, powered by its Director, and curator of film, Anoma Rajakaruna’s unceasing energy and vision, which builds bridges among the various ethnic groups and cinephiles from across the entire country and crucially South Asia and further afield, in that once war-ravaged city. The following is the film’s blurb.

“Taking the cataclysmic Easter Sunday Bombings of Churches and Hotels in April 2019, by ISIS inspired Islamists in Sri Lanka as the point of departure, the film follows the life of Asifa in Kattankdy, in Eastern Sri Lanka, as she navigates the complex social forces shaping her and other women’s stories. The film tells the story of the town, as a woman’s tale. The film is experimental in form and mixes genres and conventions.”

*****

The main fictional story line of the mother and daughter is interwoven with (what appears at first to be), documentary interviews and testimonies given by ‘real’ people, not fictional characters. However, towards the end of the film one realises that the demarcating lines between documentary and fiction have indeed been blurred. There are hints of this earlier, in the four scenes forming the large sequence ‘performed’ on a proscenium stage, as well. This blurring appears to be the result of an unusual aesthetic and political decision, which I wish to explore here. Perhaps the politics of the film are linked to this bleeding of the actual into the fictional and the reverse also. How does this device enable Face Cover to uncover subtle operations of power in a predominantly Muslim area of Lanka, in the post-war era, soon after the Easter Sunday bombings as well? The feminist slogan, ‘the personal is political,’ certainly gets elaborated quietly but quite decisively in exploring the agency of the young Muslim girl, Asifa, on the cusp of womanhood, as well. I am assuming here (as I think the film itself does), that a politics of cinema has to work on two fronts simultaneously, not only on the choice of subject/story, but also on HOW it is told, elaborated. For what’s at stake are, our powers of perception and understanding, through images and sounds, that touch us in unexpected ways. Film, I believe, can be our mentor, we can learn from film in the most enjoyable and unexpected of ways, to undo our prejudiced ways of seeing, hearing, feeling and thinking. Face Cover continues to be a revelation to me in this regard, even after multiple viewings, especially so.

Face Cover

Ashfaque Mohamed

, the title of Ashafque’s film, is in itself fascinating. Why didn’t he use the globalised Arabic word Niqab for instance? The words ‘Face Cover’ (I learn), are the same in Tamil, the English words simply transliterated and incorporated into the vernacular. It is commonly used by Muslims to refer to the practice of partially covering a woman’s face, as required by some Muslim norms. A Tamil friend suggested that it connotes both the intimacy of a piece of cloth and a sense of distance of appropriated foreign words. Perhaps this sense of ambivalence is a unique Lankan invention not perceptible in the pure Arabic official word for the practice, which is Niqab. What’s fascinating to me is that, before I saw the film and learnt about the connotations of the title Face Cover, I thought it would be a ‘hot’, topical film on a subject that has caused a great deal of debate in the West (France for example), and protests, most recently in Iran which turned violent and then garnered supporters in some Western countries especially among some feminists. It’s a topic that the Western white media finds especially irresistible. But I was mistaken to take the title Face Cover at face value, as a sign of a polemical film. And what was most surprising to me about the film was that I wrote a long email to a friend, soon after I saw the film for the first time and realised the next day that I had said absolutely nothing about the ‘problem’ of the face cover, despite having discussed the film at some length.

When I realised what I had done, I resaw the film which brought up a lot of questions but no answers, so I saw the film yet again for the third time. This time round the film began to slowly open up to my attention. It is a film, I realised, that requires a quiet focus, an attentiveness, as when one enters an unfamiliar social milieu, like when one takes one’s shoes off to go into certain places of worship in Lanka, or as it happens to some houses in Australia. Similarly, while music is used, it does so very sparingly, so that when we do hear it, it speaks in a way that wall to wall music does not, cannot. In these ways our quality of attention is tuned like a musical instrument. In fact, the only time the face cover became a ‘hot topic’ in the film was when a Sinhala trader, in a shop, makes it so by shouting at a young woman wearing a face cover. He aggressively asks her why she has her face covered and the young girl responds forcefully, asking why he wants to see her face, etc. Apart from this verbal stoush, (the only time Sinhala is heard in the film), and one re-enactment on a stage, of an Army check-point scene, from the civil-war era, the face cover itself is not conceived as a ‘problem’ to be addressed by the film. In the staged check-point scene, a soldier, carrying a gun, orders a young woman, in Tamil, to unmask at the point of his gun and she simply obeys the command. The soldier is meant to be Sinhala speaking an accented Tamil. So apart from these two ‘dramatic’ incidents, instigated by hostile people with authority and power, the face cover is not a focus of the film, it’s simply a given. Though there is a strong criticism of the Muslim male undergraduate practice of erasing the faces of female office bearers on student council photographs, at several Universities. A young Muslim woman astutely refers to this gender discrimination as a ‘digital veiling,’ images of which are displayed. This kind of internal criticism is very forceful and one hopes that Muslim male undergraduates will reflect on it and mend their ways. The check-point scene does function as a parable. More on the use of dramatic parables later, in a film where there is very little ‘drama’ in this sense of confrontations. Instead, momentous events transpire on Television News of the Easter Sunday bombings which frames the film and dates it to be set in 2019. But previous violent histories are folded into every-day-life and narrated as recollections, and an inventive mix of techniques of staged interviews and testimonies and ‘real’ interviews, replace drama, understood as actions and reactions reaching a crescendo.

Sumathy Sivamohan as Asifa’s mother

Often the interviews are played as voice-over while the person concerned goes about her every-day business, mute. This technique makes the film’s narration flexible, allowing room to play with our attention, an eye here and the ear there. I think that Ashfaque’s ethico-aesthetic sensibility evident here is a part of his film politics. I find myself listening attentively to the voice-over which rhetorically oscillates between answers to questions (which are themselves unheard), and an interior monologue. I found the texture, timbre, inflections and rhythms of the voices, especially those of the mother and daughter, very engaging, moving. Lankan cinema has not developed the autonomous potentialities of the sound track as much as it could, I think.

Face Cover

as a Lure

I was a bit slow to realise that the title, Face Cover, is a lure. It lures us into the film as a certain idea of the veil might. The veil is an alluring metaphysical idea in Kumar Shahani’s film Khyal Gatha for instance, which explores both Hindu Bhakti and Sufi Islamic traditions of spirituality as expressed in music, song and art in India which bypass both the priest and the religious institutions they control. ‘Khayal’ is an Urdu word derived from Persian which means ‘imagination,’ and is the name of a classical musical form. The idea of the ‘veil’ in Persian Sufi traditions is a complex idea, put very simply, it suggests that, reality itself is veiled (filtered, subtilised), and its perception depends on certain spiritual aesthetic practices, which reveal the imperceptible and the intangible, within the hum-drum of every-day existence. The veil as a spiritual idea, on the one hand, and the mask or ‘face cover’ socially mandated by certain Islamic patriarchal assumptions, on the other, are of course worlds apart in their conception and function and the feelings they evoke. As devout Roman Catholic girls, taught religion by Irish Catholic nuns at school, we always had to cover our heads modestly with veils when going to church.

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Midweek Review

Burnt Morsels and Barbed Wire

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By Lynn Ockersz

The war tanks are battle-ready,

Menacingly lurking, raring to roll in,

At the first call to arms,

By a strong arm gentry,

Eyeing its spoils of power and office,

Secured sans a Freedom Struggle,

But those whom it sees as subjects,

Are now hitting their mats at night,

On a diet of tepid water and burnt rice,

Left very much on their own to die,

Proving that ‘Freedom’ is a stillborn babe.

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