Saho makes it to Cannes Film Festival | Sunday Observer

Saho makes it to Cannes Film Festival

12 June, 2021

Saho (Comrade), Prof. Ariyarathna Athugala’s latest creative endeavour, is a feature film based on his book of the same name that made waves recently by being accepted into the second round of the 2021 Cannes Film Festival’s Official Selection of Feature Films.

Should it make it past the second round, that would make Saho one of the few Sri Lankan productions to ever make it into the final round of the prestigious French film festival, something that hasn’t happened since Vimukthi Jayasundara’s Sulanga Enu Pinisa won Caméra d’Or at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival.

In an interview with Prof. Ariyarathna Athugala, who wrote and directed the movie, let us know his thoughts on making his movie, its entry into Cannes as well as his feelings on the state of Sri Lanka’s film industry.

Feature film

Saho is a feature film about a group of College Students and their experiences. About how they see the world and the challenges that they face in relating to romance, authority and ambition. Though he wrote the book first, Professor Athugala said that he had always meant to make the film first and that he initially wrote a screenplay for it that he turned into a novel in his spare time. However, they remain as separate entities, as he put it, Scripts and Novels are fundamentally different to each other.

Talking about writing Saho, Prof. Athugala said that he took no direct inspirations from any other story or media. As a lover of film, he said he cannot help but be influenced by the filmmaking of that which he watches, but he was certain that the story of Saho came from his own mind with no direct inspirations whatsoever.

Athugala said he based the story on his experiences but that it was not a true story, and yet that it was not completely fiction either. The story took from general experiences, he said. The characters could not fit the mould of any real person, nor did the College they attend have any specific name.

Shooting amid difficulties

Shooting had started before the pandemic, but had to halt when lockdowns were enforced. They managed to still shoot sporadically throughout the previous year with some difficulty but was lucky not having the necessity of many locations to shoot at, given the centralised nature of his story.

As Athugala is a Professor of Mass Communications at the University of Kelaniya, he said that he was allowed to shoot on campus grounds, which were closed at the time. He managed to finish shooting quickly and used the abundance of free time to edit it down to the final product.

Prof. Athugala said that it was not a huge production but still required funding, which he got from several people, notably MP Bandula Gunawardane, who Athugala was grateful for as his contribution was not made with the expectation for the movie to make money or earn awards.

Though Saho was his first large scale feature film, it was not his first media production. Prof. Athugala has worked on many Plays, Teledramas, TV documentaries and even Short Films. He had written and directed most of them himself, as he himself put it, he did not like working on other people’s stories.

Prof. Athugala has not seen the films that he is competing against at the Cannes Film Festival, as they are not available for viewing, but he said that he is not optimistic. He spoke of how Sri Lanka’s film technology was not at the international standard and the tech that did exist was not easily accessible. So even if the talent is available, they would not have the tools to make films of an international standard. Since Saho was not an especially big production, he does not see it outperforming its international competitors.

For the future, Prof. Athugala said it is difficult to know if he can keep making films as there are very few laws or regulations from the Government that supports filmmaking. He said that this is because not enough people are choosing careers in filmmaking and that politicians have no knowledge about what goes into making a movie. Since Saho, he has tried to get a TV show going, but even that had to be scrapped. But since he will eventually part ways with the University of Kelaniya, he hopes that he can make more movies in the future.

Landmarks of great importance

Athugala said that there is still plenty of talent and that with the right support, countries such as South Korea have been able to match even the likes of Hollywood. But for things to improve, those in charge need to ask themselves, how can they improve facilities? With the number of film halls growing smaller and smaller, there are no alternative means of film distribution. No way to take things online. The remaining film halls are valuable landmarks of great importance that should receive Government support. Athugala said that it is this lack of forward-thinking that leads to the downfall of the film industry in the country.

According to him, young filmmakers have the drive for learning and developing new techniques and technologies, but have nowhere to get education and qualifications.

Prof. Athugala said that he himself, thanks to his background and having already established himself, had certain advantages that younger filmmakers will not have. We need to build a better foundation for filmmaking to support them.