tue 11/08/2020

theartsdesk in Colombo: Sri Lankan sports wannabes go global | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk in Colombo: Sri Lankan sports wannabes go global

theartsdesk in Colombo: Sri Lankan sports wannabes go global

The extraordinary movie about a ruse to win freedom

Now you see them: the Sri Lankan National Handball Team

The Regal Cinema is a charming old place. At 300 rupees for a box seat (£1.50 on a good day for the SLR), you can put your feet up, sip your Fanta in style and, peeping through the plush velour curtains that separate you from both hoi polloi and screen (if not from the nouveaux in box 9), get a disconcertingly exact idea of how the place must have felt when the young Queen Elizabeth II sat in this very seat, shortly after the place was built for her.

Like The Full Monty, this is no witless caper. Often funny, occasionally deeply touching, it is no surprise Machan has picked up awards

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I saw Machan, or Sri Lanka National Handball Team as it was named in Paris, this summer. I greatly enjoyed it while watching it, but it is not without its problems. You say that the film is too eurocentric (basically), in that the film is more about 'coming here' to Europe than why Stanley et al want to leave Sri Lanka. And then you mention by whom the film was funded. I don't think it takes too much to join the dots and to see that European film initiatives produce films designed for European markets. And these films cannot be too foreign - both in terms of the places and cultures that they depict - and in terms of the kind of film (a genre buddy film, indeed along the lines of The Full Monty) that they aim to produce. In short: if money more than social concern is driving the film, then the film will always in some sense be 'compromised.' I'd take issue with your rant about border hopping. To skip borders is illegal for some people (it is not illegal for members of the EU to skip borders between EU countries, for example). The subtext of such a statement, which is only partially true, suggests an air of "don't you come here you scroungers." Now, perhaps immigration laws are iniquitous, and perhaps Machan does not show enough about Sri Lanka's domestic shortcomings - the reasons why Stanley and Manoj want to leave, not just in terms of glamourous opportunism in Europe, but the economic and physical demands that have been placed on them and their families and which make getting out of Sri Lanka an economic necessity - but you also say that travelling to a foreign country is not a human right. I would say that such a statement presupposes the existence of countries as if they were a historical given. As Eddie Izzard might say: "Do you have a flag?" By which I mean to say, in the spirit of Benedict Anderson: the whole system of nations is historically located and not a 'natural' given. If indeed Sri Lanka, like many 'postcolonial' countries, exists precisely because its identity/borders have in part been imposed from without (and still, as you know, problematically so), then why not feel that the system of borders and boundaries that colonialism in part set up is illegitimate, and why not seek ways around it? Your argument seems also to presuppose not only that Europe is the centre of power (which it may be from the 'realist's' perspective), but also that it OUGHT to be so. About which I am not so sure. In an era of increased globalisation, in which borders become easily crossed for those who can afford it, what you are really talking about - and which you do mention, but do not pursue in any great depth - is an issue of economic prosperity, or, more simply, class. Given that globalisation has, seemingly, not improved but rather worsened income gaps, then again why not feel resentment against the haves, who seem keen to keep the have-nots in their present condition? And since globalisation has in fact destroyed national boundaries as far as the flow of money is concerned (continued exploitation in the form of imperialism), then perhaps the film is right not to sit around and blame the haves in Sri Lanka alone, but to relate this to a wider, more global system of economy...? As a colleague has written in a forthcoming book (ahem, co-authored by me: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Moving-People-Images-Trafficking-Andrews/dp/1906...), Sri Lanka's principal export is labour. The Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment, for example, gets people 'legal' jobs abroad, a system that, as outlined in Nilita Vachani's film, When Mother Comes Home for Christmas (Greece/India/Germany, 1996), encourages debt bondage (i.e. contemporary slavery, as Kevin Bales would define it). Ruan might be despicable for being a people-trafficker, but what consideration is there again of the motivations of the trafficked in this film - and, indeed, of the self-trafficking and industrious handball team? Ruan is not the problem, though; he is a symptom of something that spreads far wider (and surely his inclusion in the team is a tacit admission that he really is not that bad a guy, just someone doing his job, because you've all got to make your money somehow, typically by selling your body in one way or another). What for me was most heartbreaking about this film is indeed the general admission and even prior awareness that these Sri Lankans are going to get poor and poorly paid jobs when they break the border - their admission that they will be exploited and that this is all that they can expect in Europe, and yet they still do it. Without wishing to be too 'white man's burden', there is a sense here that all is not well in the state of Sri Lanka for this to be so. Furthermore, that the players disappear at the end of the film suggests that they become part of the invisible workforce that actually underpins much of the European economy (exploited labour forces in agriculture; nannies; the sex industry - but now in Europe rather than with rich German tourists in Colombo). In other words, the film cannot show us that which is (willfully?) invisible to the European audience? Instead, their law-avoiding is deemed something of a triumph... Again, heartbreaking. Of course, you seem more than aware of such issues in your review, which I greatly enjoyed - but you seem torn between having sympathy for those who find themselves forced into a potential system of bonded labour or debt bondage - be it at home or abroad - and yet you seem to want to say that such a problem stays in Sri Lanka. Well, I just think it's too late; we don't live in that world anymore. And it's not just a question of Sri Lanka getting its act together to sort this situation out; in a globalised world, we all must.

PS - your comment addition has taken out my neatly spaced paragraphs and made my comment an ugly block of text which no one will read (though this is perhaps for the best). Maybe get your online dude to sort this out?

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