Filmmaker Q&A: Rajee Samarasinghe
Rajee Samarasinghe is a native Sri Lankan filmmaker, currently based in the United States. His work tackles contemporary socio political conditions in Sri Lanka through the scope of his own identity and the deconstruction of ethnographic practices. Samarasinghe received his BFA from UCSD and his MFA from CalArts. He is currently working on his debut feature, Your Touch Makes Others Invisible, inspired by his childhood experiences during the Sri Lankan civil war. The project received a Sundance Documentary Fund grant in 2019 and was invited to Berlinale Talents' Doc Station as well as True/False Film Festival’s inaugural PRISM program in 2020. He was also named one of Filmmaker Magazine’s 25 New Faces of Independent Film in 2020.
Samarasinghe has received the Tíos Award for Best International Film at the Ann Arbor Film Festival and the Film House Award for visionary filmmaking at the Athens International Film + Video Festival among others. In 2015, he was invited by Harvard University to participate in their Critical Media Practice workshop, in 2019, he sat on the jury for the CalArts Film and Video Showcase, and in 2020, he programmed for both the REDCAT and the Slamdance Film Festival.
We had the chance to virtually chat with Rajee. Here’s what he had to say.
Tell us about yourself! What is your background as a filmmaker?
I’m a filmmaker originally from Sri Lanka and currently based in the United States. Growing up, I was really interested in drawing and I guess I thought I’d end up being an illustrator. I hardly saw any movies growing up and if I did it was from Bollywood. I never really thought about making films until much later, once I’d gotten bored with illustration and had to find something else to do with my life. My family eventually moved to the United States, and there was a local library where I was able to rent VHS tapes for free. The librarians never policed what I was borrowing so I would borrow films like John Waters’ Pink Flamingos and Jacques Rivette’s La Belle Noisseuse when I was 12 or 13. So I saw a lot of incredible cinema pretty early on before I could even understand what it was I was seeing. I remember watching films by Ray, Godard, Akerman, Ozu, and Fassbinder but I also really loved action films like Mark L. Lester’s Commando with Arnold Schwarzenegger and just about any Jackie Chan movie. My father was very ill and bedridden at that time so I was kind of left to my own devices. These films were endlessly fascinating and provided a refuge for me. I eventually became interested in making narrative films of my own but I didn’t want them to suck. I resolved to study experimental aesthetics to understand the cinematic form better so I could make better narratives. I ended up studying visual arts at UCSD and then experimental film at CalArts. I felt really out of place in these programs and felt completely alienated but being uncomfortable probably worked in my favor. A lot of my current work is situated in Sri Lanka but not exclusively. I tend to explore contemporary socio-political conditions in Sri Lanka through the scope of my own identity and the deconstruction of ethnographic practices. I’m currently working on my debut feature film, Your Touch Makes Others Invisible, which infuses allegorical magic realism into an investigation of enforced disappearances in post-civil war Sri Lanka.
Still from Your Touch Makes Others Invisible
Which of your films was presented at the 58th AAFF?
The film I presented was The Eyes of Summer, which is a hybrid documentary that I like to call a “spectral ethnography.” It investigates my mother’s interactions with spirits during her childhood and, through this, I also examine Sri Lanka’s post-civil war era. I shot it in my mother’s village and collaborated with members of my family there to realize it.
What was your biggest challenge when creating your film?
Everything was challenging in some sense but it was all exacerbated by my inexperience. I shot the footage for this film many years ago and it was really my first time attempting to shoot anything ambitious. I honestly didn’t know what I was doing. I had just purchased my first camera and had decided to buy an anamorphic projector lens off eBay, which I then clamped onto the face of the camera’s 50mm lens. So by doing this I had to focus two lenses at the same time which was pretty challenging. Aside from the technical challenges, which were many, I was trying to develop a language to approach this place as well as my mother’s stories and the circumstances around the civil war. The sound was also built entirely in a studio years after the shoot. I was shooting and recording sound by myself so there were times that I’d just forget to record sound. Sometimes I’d finish shooting and realize hours later that I’d left my Zoom recorder on a rock somewhere and I’d immediately go run and get it. So working with my sound mixer, Christina C. Nguyen, to create a sonic world was an uphill battle. Even just syncing footsteps was a real challenge.
Still from The Eyes of Summer
What was the most exciting part of creating your film?
It was the aspect of navigating through the unknown. I didn’t know what I was getting into. That always remains the most appealing aspect of my filmmaking process. I’m really just trying to create a space for accidents which I can then harness and shape into something. I lean on improvisational techniques and just follow one accident to another. Even with non-actors non-acting, I try to create a context for them to function that is both fluid and unpredictable. I want to be amused and thrilled by my own creation. Later, if it all works out, I can just pretend like I planned the whole thing. There’s also the editing process and discovering all these unusual visual and sonic associations. Seeing the film emerge in the edit is always super gratifying.
What influences your work and how is that reflected in your film?
My family and heritage are vessels into the past and devices for conceptual thought. As an artist, they help me think critically about myself and the world I inhabit. Growing up during the Sri Lankan Civil War and emigrating to the United States also figured into my work in significant ways. A lot of my films deal with past traumas and concepts of home and identity that are constantly being destroyed and reconstructed. I hope these ideas can be felt in The Eyes of Summer in one way or another. I can definitely see them reflected in how I initiated the project and went about constructing the central narrative.
Still from The Eyes of Summer
Is there a particular filmmaker who has been the most inspiring or influential to you?
I often think about the films and writings of Mani Kaul who passed away in 2011. I recall a story he told, I think in relation to The Cloud Door, in which he was shooting a long take only to realize that the focus ring had gradually moved the shot out of focus. Kaul had his assistant tape the focus ring and he shot a second take. Watching the two takes, he prefered the take out of focus because it had a certain quality that the other didn’t have. Kaul had talked a lot about St. Augustine and Jansen who believed in grace choosing its own recipient. That grace will fall on its own accord on the object it wants to fall on and the job of a director is to recognize the intrusion of grace. For his film Nazar, Kaul asked his cinematographer to not look through the lens to avoid an impulsive appropriation of space. Rejecting, what he called, the dichotomy of the profane and the sacred which is the idea that there is a definite line between what’s “good” and what’s “bad” and that we must always eliminate the latter and keep the former. He also said that the European Renaissance introduced perspective and the idea of convergence, which would go on to influence a number of subsequent forms and adversely encourage cinema’s superficial capacity for realism. He said a lot of things actually. I found him very interesting and he even taught at CalArts for a spell before my time there and I really think there’s something to his logic that I find useful. Also, these ideas are reflected so beautifully and with such clarity in his work.
What memorable responses have you had to this film?
I dedicated the film to my sister and frequent collaborator, Delini Malka Samarasinghe, and she was present for the screening at Slamdance in January. She was moved by the gesture which made me very happy. It’s odd, because the film’s had a pretty good run on the festival circuit but the pandemic hit shortly after the film premiered so I really haven’t had too many opportunities to even receive personal responses to the film, memorable or otherwise.
Still from The Eyes of Summer
What format, techniques, and/or media do you use to create your film?
For The Eyes of Summer, I used a Canon Rebel T2i digital camera with an anamorphic lens along with a Zoom H4n sound recorder and a tripod. Pretty rudimentary and I operated everything myself. I tend to make my films using very inexpensive equipment and not a lot of it at that. For the past few years, I’ve been using the video function of a small Sony point-and-shoot camera to shoot most of my films including the previous film I presented at the Ann Arbor Film Festival, Foreign Quarters. I think bulky and expensive equipment tends to just create a lot of anxiety. I feel far more liberated with smaller and cheaper equipment.
Why did you want to show your work at the AAFF?
It’s a remarkable venue for contemporary film. There’s the beautiful Michigan Theater along with a friendly and fun atmosphere. I discovered so many great movies at the Ann Arbor Film Festival and met a lot of lovely people. I first attended the festival in 2018 with my film Foreign Quarters and I’ve been wanting to return ever since. I was planning to attend [the 58th AAFF] and the festival was cancelled just a week or two before it was supposed to happen and then Leslie and her team did such a remarkable job of putting the festival online. I’m glad I got to be a part of the festival in one way or another this year. I just feel really privileged to be able to show my work here.
Are you working on anything currently? If yes, has creating in quarantine changed your work or subject of your films in any way?
I’ve completed four short films since lockdown. Creating under these circumstances hasn't really affected the subject matter of my work — my work has always been political and depressing so it sits well with current times. I’m developing a fifth short film this year, this time with Hello Benjamin Films, the production company behind my feature film in the works. It’s something that will be really short and conceptually linked to my feature in a way that sort of anticipates it. I’m currently writing the script and developing the visual language for it with my cinematographer, Solomon Turner, who will also shoot the feature with me.
What have been some of the greatest creative challenges for you during this time?
Outside of not being able to shoot anything, I haven’t had too many significant creative challenges. I tend to keep an archive of footage so I’ve just been editing and generating a lot of new work. I’ve also been writing quite a bit.