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The Cinematic Journey of Sanjeewa Pushpakumara: Insights from a Film Director

The Cinematic Journey of Sanjeewa Pushpakumara: Insights from a Film Director

When I began to pen this article on my rather short career as a film director, I received an email from the Tokyo International Film Festival. It mentioned that the festival had selected my new film Peacock Lament for its main competition. It was a piece of such joyful news. I wrote this article with that joy in my heart. It has not been such a smooth journey to get here. It took almost seven years to complete the film. I began this project back in 2015. Peacock Lament was invited by the Biennale College to be one of twelve final projects in their low-budget filmmaking workshop initiative in Venice. During the residency workshop, I was lucky enough to mingle and interact with young and aspiring film directors and producers from all around the world. We were all eager to make our next films. We all wanted to learn a lot about writing, producing, financing, and current changes in the international film landscape. The program taught us everything from script development to marketing our films. It was a great opportunity to meet important industry experts from America to Europe. 

Peacock Lament

Four years since Venice Biennale College, in 2019 I was invited by Nipkow Art Residence in Berlin to advance the script development of Peacock Lament. It was a three-month residency program. During the residency I had another great chance to meet some of the leading young Asian filmmakers from all around the world such as Locarno Golden Leopard winner Yeo Siew Hua (A Land Imagined/ 2018). We all were in Nipkow with the intention of developing our next project. During the residency we had intense workshopping sessions on storytelling, sales, distribution, financing, and international festivals. Each filmmaker had their own script consultant to develop their scripts. Thanks to the residency I met my Italian co-producer of Peacock Lament and fellow resident, Andrea Magnani. We teamed up to produce Peacock Lament as a European Minority co-production. Andrea and I managed to receive funds from the Italian Cultural Ministry and the Italian Regional Fund from Trieste. Eventually, these funds and the Italian collaboration helped me complete the film.

Humble Beginnings

I was born in a very rural village in the Eastern Province of Sri Lanka. I moved to Colombo to find a job in the media. However, I ended up as a filmmaker. Ever since I decided to be a filmmaker, I knew it was going to be a very tough pilgrimage, but I also knew that I must begin it. I began my career as a self-taught filmmaker, and I have never missed any chance locally or internationally I saw where I could improve my knowledge of cinema. That said, I always considered myself a student. This simple concept always helps me discover and learn things from international industry experts and academics. Thanks to the Korean Cultural Initiative Programme I was able to take part in a residency filmmaking program at the Asian Young Filmmakers forum in South Korea in 2007. This program was designed to connect young Asian filmmakers to share their knowledge and learn from Korean film experts. Since then, I began to explore all possible opportunities through the internet. 

International Opportunites & Debut Feature

Taking part in the Asian Film Academy of Busan International Festival (2009) and Berlinale Talent Campus of Berlin Film Festival (2012) were very fruitful education milestones in my life as a young filmmaker. Day by day I am learning how vast, deep, and versatile the international film industry is. Furthermore, I have realized that without international support there is no way forward for a filmmaker like me from a country like Sri Lanka where neither a film education system nor government or public supporting system for filmmaking exists. By early 2010 with the international standard knowledge I had gained I had fully understood that without being either a low-budget or no-budget filmmaker my career as a filmmaker would stagnate. Hence, I researched about Italian Neo-Realism, the French New Way, Chinese Fifth Generation to Dogme filmmaking and contemporary filmmakers such as Kim ki Duk, Carlos Reygadas, Nuri Bilge Ceylan; about how they made their films in very difficult conditions. I decided to follow in their footsteps. The result was my debut film Flying Fish. It was shot mid-2010 with less than 25, 000 USD with the humble support from the Sri Lankan company Asia Digital Entertainment which was led by Mr. Manohan Nanayakkara. Later I applied to the Hubert Bals Funds (HBF) for post-production support and received 20,000 euros. I completed the post-production in India with HBF money. Eventually, the film was invited to the Tiger Competition of International Film Festival of Rotterdam (IFFR) in 2011. 

Journey on the Film Festival Circuit

While traveling with Flying Fish, I was able to meet some genuine industry people like Ludmila Cvikova, who was then a programmer of IFFR. She taught me a lot about the international industry safe of the film world. Also, I met Paolo Bertolini from Venice Film Festival who connected me to Pascale Ramonda, a businesswoman from France. She took Flying Fish under her company (Festival Strategies) label. Eventually, the film had a very good life in the festival circuit. I didn’t miss any chance I received to travel with the film as I wanted to meet people as much as possible. At the end of 2011 during the 3 Continent film festival in Nantes, France I met French Producer Dominique Wellinski. She became one of my co-producers for Burning Birds, my second film. 

Burning Birds

With the immense support of Dominque Wellinski, I developed Burning Birds. She greatly helped me to enter the Cannes Cinefondation Residency Programme. In October 2012, I was invited to Paris by the Cinefondation to take part in a residency program. I had freedom and a comfortable life to write my script in the residency. Living with five other international filmmakers in the same house for months was a tremendous experience. One of Indonesia's one leading contemporary filmmakers, Kamila Andini was one of my fellow filmmakers at the residency. We had a good chance to talk with each other and share our knowledge of art to filmmaking.

For the first time in my life, I had the chance to experience the world’s greatest arts in Paris. On most days, as a residency filmmaker in Paris during the daytime I visited museums then in the nighttime I wrote my script. At the end of the Paris Residence in 2013, the Cinefondation also supported me to get selected for the Jerusalem International Film Lab in Israel. This lab lasted seven months as a hybrid program of residency and online. French script consultant Jacques Akchoti was my script doctor during the program. Again I had another wonderful opportunity to meet young prolific filmmakers from all around the world such as Ritesh Batra (Lunch Box,2013). We all had a great opportunity for comments and feedback on our projects. The Jerusalem Lab became not only a professional hub but also an academic venture in my life of filmmaking. 

Dominique Welisnki brought French producer Antonin Dedet (Neon Film) to the Burning Birds project as my main international co-producer. As a team, we raised funds from the Doha Film Institute (DFI) for production, CNC (National Center for Cinema and Moving Image, France) and Hubert Bals Funds (HBF) of IFFR. Together with such international funds and local funds I completed the film. Finally, Burning Birds entered the New Currents Competition of the Busan Film Festival in 2016. With UK-based sales agent Film Republic, Burning Birds travelled to a considerable amount of film festivals. The film also garnered several accolades.

A Lifelong Film Student

Parallel to my filmmaking, I continue my academic career. In 2010, I was given the opportunity by the Korean Government to pursue my MFA in Filmmaking from Chung Ang University as a KGSP Fellow. Currently, I’m reading for my Ph.D. in Filmmaking again at Chung Ang University. One of the reasons why I continue my academic life is that every day I am able to meet people who talk about cinema, and that fuels my lifelong passion for film. 


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