The Song of Ceylon

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The Song of Ceylon
Directed by Basil Wright
Produced by John Grierson (producer)
Written by Robert Knox (sailor) (commentary, excerpt from "An Historical Relation of Ceylon")
Starring See below
Narrated by Lionel Wendt
Music by Walter Leigh
Cinematography Basil Wright John Taylor
Edited by Basil Wright
Release dates
  • 1934 (1934)
Running time
38 minutes
Country United Kingdom
Language English

The Song of Ceylon is a 1934 British documentary film directed by Basil Wright and produced by John Grierson for the Ceylon Tea Propaganda Board.

The film was shot on location in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) at the start of 1934 and completed at the GPO film studios in Blackheath, London.

Digitized versions of the film are available to watch online on YouTube and via the Colonial Film: Moving Images of the British Empire website. See the links below.

The YouTube version is low quality in comparison to the version on the Colonial Film site.

A DVD version of the film is available from the British Film Institute as part of their award winning GPO DVD series.

Extract from BFI Screen Online[edit]

Made by the GPO Film Unit and sponsored by both the Empire Tea Marketing Board and the Ceylon Tea Board, Song of Ceylon is one of the most critically acclaimed products of the documentary film movement. It was hailed at the time of its release by author and film critic Graham Greene as a cinematic masterpiece, and received the award for best film at the International Film Festival in Brussels, 1935.

The film is a sophisticated documentary, notable for its experimentation with sound. It features crucial input from Alberto Cavalcanti, who helped with the soundtrack, as well as composer Walter Leigh, who experimented in the studio to create a number of sound effects.

The film's soundtrack was carefully put together in a studio because technical limitations precluded the ability to record synchronised sound. Leigh constructed a number of 'exotic' sounds, reflecting ceremonial practice and interweaved them with anthropological narration. At times these sounds are disconcerting in the way that they are used: gong sounds, for instance, are treated and manipulated to increase their harshness. The most striking use of experimental sound occurs in the third section of the film, which depicts the effects of telecommunications systems on the native lifestyle. A montage of industrial sounds and electronic waves are mixed together, creating an expressive, yet rather dissonant, sense of the encroachment of modernity.

The third section of the film is the most disconcerting of the four sections and initially contrasts with the other sections. Yet overall the film is structured in a 'circular' manner, emphasising that continuity can occur despite the onset of an initially alien way of life.. The first two sections focus on native rituals and working practices, always stressing the Sinhalese in relation to their natural environment. The modernity of the third sequence initially implies that nature and tradition are endangered by advanced industrialism, but in the last section we return again to the natives partaking in another ceremony, while industrial sounds become merged with the 'traditional' sounds.

Ultimately, then, Song of Ceylon imparts the message that nature and native traditions can coexist harmoniously with modernity. The film proposes a benign, rather than ruthless, message of progress, stressing the benefits of technological innovations. At the end of the film, the camera pans over palm leaves, while a gong sound is also heard, reprising images and sounds featured at the start.

by Jamie Sexton //

Plot summary[edit]

Ambitious documentary chronicling the cultural life and religious customs of the Sinhalese and the effects of advanced industrialism on such customs.

The first part of the film depicts the religious life of the Sinhalese, interlinking the Buddhist rituals with the natural beauty of Ceylon. Opening with a series of pans over palm leaves, we then gradually see people journey to Adam's Peak, a center of Buddhist pilgrimage for over two hundred years. This is continually inter-cut with images of surrounding natural beauty and a series of pans of a Buddhist statue.

Part two focuses on the working life of the Sinhalese, again continually stressing their intimate connection to the surrounding environment. We see people engaging in pottery, woodcarving and the building of houses, whilst children play.

The third part of the film introduces the arrival of modern communications systems into the fabric of this 'natural' lifestyle, heralded by experimental sounds and shots of industrial working practices.

Finally, in the last part of the film, we return to the religious life of the Sinhalese, where people dress extravagantly to perform a ritual dance. The film ends as it began, panning over palm trees.





External links[edit]