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Song of Ceylon (1934)

Courtesy of Sri Lanka Tea Board

Main image of Song of Ceylon (1934)
35mm, black and white, 37 mins
Directed byBasil Wright
Production CompanyGPO Film Unit
SponsorsCeylon Tea Propaganda Bureau, Empire Tea Marketing Board
ProducerJohn Grierson

Ambitious documentary chronicling the cultural life and religious customs of the Sinhalese and the effects of advanced industrialism on such customs. The film is poetic in tone and features a number of image and sound montage sequences.

Show full synopsis

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.

Jamie Sexton

*This film is included in the BFI DVD compilation 'Addressing The Nation: The GPO Film Unit Collection Volume 1'.

Click titles to see or read more

Video Clips
1. The Buddha (9:10)
2. The Virgin Island (11:40)
3. The Voices of Commerce (6:23)
4. The Apparel of a God (9:11)
Complete film (36:57)
Production stills
John Taylor: BECTU Interview Part 5 (1988)
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Cavalcanti, Alberto (1897-1982)
Taylor, John (1914-1992)
Wright, Basil (1907-1987)
20s-30s Avant-Garde
The GPO Film Unit: 1934