Sri Lankan filmmaker Vimukthi Jayasundara’s debut and only film to date, The Forsaken Land (2005), opens at dusk with the shot of an armed man carefully surveying a vast stretch of land, walking over it in a zigzag pattern and pausing occasionally to observe specific points on it. Following this, we see a montage of seemingly unrelated images – a hand running over a tube light, a rigid arm jutting out of a stream of water and a couple sleeping, filmed head on – that recall Weerasethakul’s films for some reason and announce the otherworldly nature of this land where the story is to unfold. The Forsaken Land embodies the quintessence of the radical, new age aesthetic known as Contemporary Contemplative Cinema with its penchant for protracted, long shots and accentuated, hyper-real direct sound (particularly the sounds of elements of nature), its keen eye for landscapes and its tendency to favour the documentation of rhythm of life and gradual changes in human behavioral patterns over construction of intricate plots and dense theoretical analyses and announces (as do most of the films employing this aesthetic) that the time for action is over and the time for reflection has indeed begun. Having been slammed by the right wing for being anti-war and, indirectly, pro-terrorist, and received threats from the ruling majority, Jayasundara hasn’t made a film since.
The Forsaken Land is set at a time when war between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of the Tamil Ealam (LTTE) has reached a deadlock and is at a point where either side can trigger the next phase of battles. But it becomes clear, as the film unfolds, that this abeyance of war is just an illusion of peace that will be disrupted anytime, as indicated by the threatening presence of tanks, trucks and jeeps everywhere. The film charts the lives of six individuals living in a remote area in southern part of the country – Anura (Mahendra Perera), the lone guard at the local military outpost who goes to duty everyday to protect it from a nonexistant enemy, his wife Lata (Nilupli Jeyawardena) who stays home, spending her time observing the world around her, his sister Soma (Kaushalya Fernando) who goes to work in the town nearby and who is either unmarried or has lost her spouse, his colleague, the old man Piyasiri (Hemasiri Liyanage), who seems to have a strange affinity towards the little girl Batti (Pamudika Sapurni Peiris), who may or may not be the daughter of Soma and a soldier Palitha (Saumya Liyanage), who has an affair with Lata. Not only is none of these relationships made clear, but they are also rendered irrelevant. Information is aptly given in extremely small amounts with only barebones of a story to support it.
The first thing that one notices in the film is how sparse the locales are. There are hardly any people seen. There is no connection of the village to the world around it save for the occasional bus that takes Batti to her school and Soma to her workplace. There are no TVs, no radios or even newspapers that are seen in the film (till Soma decides to buy a radio from her salary). Anura’s house, itself, stands as the lone man-made structure in this seemingly limitless plain. Additionally, the film does not particularize the location and hence it can be assumed that Jayasundara is universalizing the conditions of his central characters. It is not only a geographical vacuum that these characters seem to be living in, but also in political, moral and cinematic vacuums. Clearly, these characters are suspended in the hiatus between two brutal civil wars, unable to settle down into a permanent life style. They amuse themselves with petty sexual games and illicit affairs while murder is not an uncommon act around here. Somehow, all the characters in the film seem to have landed smack dab in the amoral middle of the moral spectrum (Only Anura turns out to be residing in a void within this void, with a shade of positive morality within, as indicated by the final minutes of the film). Moreover, in the indoor scenes of the film (there aren’t many), Jayasundara and cinematographer Channa Deshapriya light and film these characters in such a way that they seem to live inside a black void, unable to get out and soon to be annihilated by it.
But these people also harbour a hope, in vain, of escaping this limbo. Palitha wishes that he can go north and fly a helicopter, Soma decides to move out and teach at schools in other villages and Anura criticizes Palitha for blaspheming, betraying his belief that there is a higher power that will carry him through. They even speak about reincarnations in these lands forsaken by god. But, of course, they are sucked back by the void and dragged back into the vicious circle. It’s a circle alright. Piyasiri tells Batti a story about a dwarf girl and a hunchback. Like the hunchback who destroys his own house (and later himself) to protect his vanity and keeps doing the same mistake ad infinitum, all these characters seem be going in the same enclosed path (This seems to be the very case with the civil war, in fact, where for some arbitrary ideologies, people seem to be killing each other). Like the eternal repercussions of the hunchback’s deeds, the mistakes of the past – both personal and national – seem to bear upon each of the adults in the film. Only Batti, the icon of future and posterity in the film, with her innocence and untainted morality, free of any scar from the past, offers some hope when she boards the bus out of this blasted village as the film fades to black.
Anura guarding the outpost that is far from being under threat is reminiscent of Herzog’s Signs of Life (1968), where, too, the very purpose of existence of the characters was questioned. But unlike Herzog’s protagonist who attempts to induce aggression onto the ruined, dead and harmless surroundings, the characters in Jayasundara’s film succumb to it. The sudden passivity that follows an intense period of violence seems to have thrown them out of control. But, rather than Herzog, Jayasundara’s use of landscapes to underscore the moral depravity and pointlessness of the character’s lives suggests Rossellini and Antonioni. The house the characters live in is breaking down; there are hints of death around them regularly; the characters are ironically cleansing themselves now and then as if to rid themselves of this stagnation. Why, the building that unites all the characters and is placed physically on the highest ground, as if it is a sacred monument, is, of all things, a toilet. There is an image in the film early on of Anura sitting naked, stripped of his uniform and hence his identity, within bushes holding on to his gun. This could well represent the whole idea that the film presents. What’s the use of a weapon when you are dying out there, stark naked? What’s the use of boosting your defense systems when your people are dying of hunger and cold? However, Jayasundara’s film, although a maiden work, rarely lends itself to such propagandistic statements and, instead, lets us discover what it is like to be out there.
Godard once remarked that the best film on Auschwitz is one that unfolds in the house of one of the prison guards. Jayasundara’s film comes very close to that. It is more interested in what the war has done than the war itself. The focus of the film is the indelible scars a war leaves on its land and its people. The people in The Forsaken Land are those who have not been able to get rid of the inertia of fear and instability triggered by the war. They have resorted to nihilism, indulging themselves in superficial relationships and casual sex, perhaps in a belief that this state of peace is only transitory and there is no escape from the war. Like the fortunate turtle, which Batti finds, that escapes the claws of the vulture for a brief period of time, like that fish out of water waiting for the rain to pull it back into its routine, these people are merely waiting for fate to sweep them along and out of this limbo. And Jayasundara’s film proficiently shows us how such a precarious situation can prompt a human being to shed all the values he/she holds dear. By actually presenting the insanity that happens during a period of ceasefire, in the form of tortures and custody killings, as grotesque, brutal and indigestible, Jayasundara’s film indirectly questions the absurdity of justifying the very same routines during the war as acts of glory and honour.