In 2015, a French director won the Cannes Film Festival's top prize with a film inspired by Sri Lanka's contemporary political troubles; now, the South Asian country's very own filmmakers have finally offered their own riposte. Revolving around a war widow's near-complete physical and psychological breakdown as she goes to extremes to feed her family, Sanjeewa Pushpakumara's Burning Birds is a much more poised and harrowing affair than Jacques Audiard's Palme d'Or-winning Dheepan.
Burning Birds is, first and foremost, a fiery indictment about how women struggle and sink in war-torn, machismo-dripping societies. Just like his compatriot Vimukthi Jayasundara (The Forsaken Land, Between Two Worlds), Pushpakumara also ensures the social criticism is dressed up in a rigorous aesthetic; the protagonist's spiral toward total martyrdom is shown through meticulously framed sequences.
Boasting European backing aplenty — the film was co-produced by a French company, and repped by a London-based outfit — Pushpakumara's second feature, which premiered in Busan and then won a prize at Tokyo's FilmEx festival last year, should travel far and wide on the festival circuit after its bows at Rotterdam and Goteborg. Pushpakumara's first film, Flying Fish, was a competition title in Rotterdam in 2011, but was banned by the right-wing government back in Sri Lanka for its depictions of atrocities committed by the military in its offensive against Tamil insurgents.
Pushpakumara is understandably more careful this time around, and no soldiers are seen doing bad things onscreen; the villains here are either paramilitaries or civilians. But this is actually much more stinging a rebuke against the systemic failure of a society shaped and dominated by chauvinists — men who are more than willing to exploit times of social strife for their own personal gains.
Set in 1989, when Sri Lanka was still mired in civil war, Burning Birds charts the fall of Kusul (Anoma Janadari), a woman whose impoverished life is turned upside down when her fishmonger husband is arrested and summarily executed by a local militia for suspected subversive activities. With the breadwinner gone, Kusul is forced to look for ways to support herself, her eight children and her unsympathetic mother-in-law.
Determined to keep everybody alive and well — and especially in making sure her eldest daughter will continue her studies rather than leave school for a dead-end sweatshop job — Kusul begins her journey to earn a living in the poorest of lands. And from then on, it's a journey through hell on earth: In addition to her labor in the most unseemly places — hammering stones in a dusty quarry, clearing blood and body parts in a slaughterhouse — Kusul falls foul of both sexual predators and self-righteous moralists.
As Kusul, Janadari delivers a powerfully rugged tour de force. Shunning easy histrionics, the veteran actor offers a remarkable performance showcasing her character's silent, stoic spirit — a Sri Lankan Sisyphus struggling against insurmountable odds but persisting nevertheless. Juxtaposing her toils with wide, wild and windswept landscapes, Burning Birds is a blistering social and artistic statement.
Production companies: Neon Production, Sapushpa Expressions
Cast: Anoma Janadari, Samanalee Fonseka, Mahendra Perera, Chandani Senevirathne
Director-screenwriter: Sanjeewa Pushpakumara
Producers: Antonin Dedet, Sanjeewa Pushpakumara
Director of photography: Kalinga Deshapriya
Production designer: Piyathissa Akurambada
Costume designer: Ajantha Alahakoon
Editors: Ajith Ramanayake, Katharina Wartena
Music: R. Abaji, Philip David Sheppard
Sales: Film Republic