International scholar, filmmaker, Professor of English, poet, activist, director, actor, playwright. With such inspiring occupations and skills, Dr. Sumathy Sivamohan was met with immediate admiration and wonder from her audience as Dr. Nalin Jayasena, of the Miami University Literature Program, introduced the guest speaker this past Tuesday, October 15th, in Irvin 40. Dr. Sivamohan currently teaches at the University of Peradeniya in Sri Lanka, and she arrived on Miami’s Oxford campus earlier last week to visit various classes, give a perceptive talk entitled,Cinema as Counter Word, and screen her recent award-winning film, Sons and Fathers (2017).
In her talk, Cinema as Counter Word, Dr. Sivamohan began by examining the dominant norms informing contemporary cinematic practices. She describes these dominant norms as what one would tend to associate with stereotypically Hollywood, big-budget films–from enormous sets to star-studded casts. This centralized (even hegemonic as Dr. Sivamohan suggests) space and discourse surrounding big-budget cinematic practices operates under truth as a “given,” as something already “settled” or understood. It is this commanding truth, then, which tries to dictate film as a practice which must have a big-budget, stars, etc.
Enter Dr. Sivamohan’s films and cinematic practices. Lacking the extraordinary budget of typical Hollywood films, a cast of “stars,” and steeped in the portrayal of the still fresh memory of the Sri Lankan Civil War, the films of Dr. Sivamohan encapsulate a cinematic form, content, and production process in stark contrast to the prevailing big-budget, more typically Western, cinematic production ideologies. Dr. Sivamohan, though, does not see her films as necessarily lacking; instead she situates her lower-budget films as disruptive of the commanding ‘truth’ of big-budget cinematic practices, as a counter word within the conversation of cinema. Notably, she mentioned how not having a larger budget to afford ‘stars’ in her cast caused a questioning of the nature of stardom itself. Unable to afford big-name stars, Dr. Sivamohan saw her films diversifying, and she articulated that such situations in cinema, for her at least, made everyone a star by working with “ordinary people.” In acknowledging the ways in which lower-budget films could challenge the conventions of dominant cinematic practices, Dr. Sivamohan even went on to inquire who would buy “my film which questions their very notion of production?”
Indeed, Dr. Sivamohan celebrated the “magic” and creativity of her lower-budget films not only for the imaginative power they grant the audience, but also their ability to take risks and investigate the nature of artifice and truth within the practice of cinema. Nearing the end of Dr. Sivamohan’s presentation, a portion of her experimental short film, Sing, Mother, Sing, was screened. A Q & A session followed the film clip, and several audience members (myself included) were quite drawn to the use of a newspaper-wrapped “gun” as the film depicted the effect of violence on susceptible, depreciated groups. Due to a particular ban on working with guns in cinema and being unable to afford making a replica, the newspaper-wrapped fake gun was used. It is here where Dr. Sivamohan expressed her belief in the “magic” of small budget films. Not having a budget to achieve certain “typical” or realistic cinematic moments seems to inspire filmmakers like Dr. Sivamohan to manipulate their “limited” resources and prompt a critique of the dominant film discourse–a discourse which likely seeks to diminish the work of lower-budget films. Dr. Sivamohan briefly noted how the newspaper-wrapped gun worked to prompt questions about artificiality and the validity of truth. The gun shown in the film asks us to question the legitimacy or the truth of images presented before us. Whether seeing this fake gun in place of a real one is meant to highlight the artificial nature of cinema production (through props, sets, etc.) or examine the artificial narratives often presented during times of war and violence, is unclear. However, this ambiguity about the purposes of the newspaper-wrapped gun and themes of artificiality is important in disrupting the dominant “truth” of big-budget film practices.
Another memorable moment from the Q & A was Professor Cheryl Johnson’s question regarding Dr. Sivamohan’s handling of silence throughout Sing, Mother, Sing. Dr. Johnson was curious as to how Dr. Sivamohan chose to manipulate various silences throughout the film, because emotional moments were often made silent–seemingly to invite the audience to insert meaning and personal thought into those moments. Without much hesitation, Dr. Sivamohan cited “instinct” as her method for manipulating sound and silence. She laughed while describing her thought process on deciding whether or not to use sound, thinking, “Oh, this needs music? Let’s not put music there!” Again, Dr. Sivamohan showed us how her films disrupt the dominant narrative of big-budget film practices by undermining and defying what is expected of a “typical” western, Hollywood, blockbuster hit—such as utilizing music during a moment of intense emotion.
Dr. Sivamohan gave us an insightful glimpse into her work as a filmmaker-activist-scholar which allows her to create disruptive art. Beyond presenting her films as unsettling the dominant word or “truth” of big-budget cinematic practice, Dr. Sivamohan also portrays the violent conflict of the Sri Lankan Civil War in her work, actively questioning and grappling with our understanding of violence, war, and the lasting effects of colonial brutality. Indeed, though our time with Dr. Sivamohan was limited, it was nothing short of impactful and thought-provoking, and we look forward to seeing more of her rousing work.
Bridget Farahay is a senior from Dublin, Ohio. She is an English Literature major and Classical Humanities minor. Her interests lie in literature/film analysis, Classical reception, and music making.