by Thilak S. Fernando

Tissa Madawela, a prominent icon in the Sri Lankan community in London as the man behind the video camera and newly appointed Additional Correspondent to Sri Lankan Rupavahini Corporation is a pioneer in London to screen Sinhala films to the expatriate community. After showing films, he diversified his ambitions towards Sinhala tele-drama productions in London. Very recently he was thwarted badly by a film-making-team who came from Sri Lanka to the extent that he has been black listed to sponsor anyone to Britain by the British High Commission in Colombo. In a hard hitting interview Tissa Madawela gives a factual account to Tilak S. Fernando, as to what exactly took place in London and how he has lost faith in human beings from a single bad experience and mainly to clear his name.

Q. You have been a pioneer in screening and promoting Sinhala films in London from the Classic Cinema at Praed Street, Paddington, from 1980s, on every last Sunday of the month. Why did you discontinue it?

A. My Guru in the film world and friend GDL Perera initiated this project. G.D.L was managing the cinema at the time. With his able guidance, we managed to screen Sinhala films regularly for about 5 years. When the cinema was sold out to a property developer, we had to abandon it.

Q. You took an interest in video filming in London long before the video camera became a common ‘toy’, so to speak. What inspired and drove you towards this field in the first instance?

A. I was involved in the film industry in Sri Lanka for a long time. It was, therefore, quite natural for me to continue it in London as well.

Q. Today you are a household name being the most experienced professional within the Sri Lankan community in London who has taken a keen interest in recording on tape a variety of events related to Sri Lankans living here, making news videos and documentaries covering almost every aspect of the community activities, and even despatching them to the Sri Lankan television centres out of your own pocket. You have to be really dedicated to do this. How many documentaries and other programmes have you done so far ?.

A. In any task dedication is a vital factor if you want to succeed. To put a number to my work is quite difficult off the cuff. My first documentary on Sri Lankan TV was Amaradeva’s London performance, organised by the Sinhala Association in 1981. Ever since I have covered many cultural, religious and social programmes which are countless and were shown on Sri Lankan television. My idea was mainly to project to the audiences at home what happens within the expatriate community in the UK, apart from it being my hobby. Recently I have been appointed as an Additional Correspondent to the Sri Lankan Rupavahini for which I am grateful to Ven. Galayaye Piyadassi Thera, Head of Sri Saddhatissa International Buddhist Centre, for his assessment of my work and recommendation.

Q. Making a documentary is not an easy task; it requires to be professional all round because it is not simply handling a camera, isn’t that so ? Do you attend to other technical aspects in a production of a documentary such editing, dubbing etc., yourself?

A. Yes I do most of it by myself and I have accumulated the necessary equipment over the years to make a decent production. I am grateful to many of my friends who have helped me in this area and I must make a special mention here about the help given to me by Sisira Chandrasekera, Wima Alahakoon and Wilfred Perera among many.. On the technical aspect I am a self-tutor on this subject with guidance from my friends in the industry.

Q. This surely involves a lot of time and drains your energy equally. How do you cope with such responsibilities and associated pressures? Do you get support and encouragement from your family? I am sure when you are engaged in a job it must be taking all your evenings, nights and weekends too!

A. All my spare time is spent on filming and editing programmes. I have a very understanding wife and I have trained my son Anupa, who has shown a keen interest in becoming a proficient cinematographer.

Q. In the very first Sinhala teledrama, Rata Giya Atto, produced in London by G.D.L. Perera you worked as the Assistant camera operator with a world famous, ITN cinematographer Tony Mander, who shot 007 films. How confident were you at that time having to rub shoulders with a world class professional in the job?

A. Tony Mander was a simple, friendly, and helpful person to work with. We came to know Tony when we hired professional video equipment to record Amaradeva’s programme. Ever since we became good friends and he has parted quite a lot of his knowledge to me in all aspects of filmmaking.

Q. In what other London productions did you get involved?

A. I have worked as the production designer of GDL Perera’s English film, Peter of the Elephants, which was filmed in Sri Lanka and sold to an international distributor.

Q. About three years ago you diversified and upgraded you into a cinematographer cum a co-producer in Sriyani Amarasena’s fist teledrama, Irabata Tharuwa, filmed on location in London. What experience and lessons did you learn out of it?

A. Ira Bata Tharuwa was the first British/Sri Lankan co-production ever made in London. This was initiated by Lilani Perera. I was only helping them out, basically on the technical and logistic side of day-to-day filming. During four weeks of shooting we had a wonderful time. Having had the opportunity to work with a Director like Sugath Rohana we all learnt a lot about the modern techniques of making films in Sri Lanka. My good friend Wimal Alahakoon was a tower of strength on the production side. Without his assistance it would not have been possible at all to finish the project according to plan.

Q. Let’s talk about your abortive tele-drama, Mona Llisa, about which there has been a lot of tittle-tattle in the community, which even hit the Sri Lankan Sunday Observer newspaper front page as hot news recently. Why was it abandoned suddenly after spending vast amounts of money and going to the extent of bringing artistes and technical staff all the way from Sri Lanka?

A. Mona Lisa was a dream, which I am sorry to say, which turned into a nightmare halfway through. I had to face many a problem and ultimately my good name also has been tarnished. I am disappointed, depressed, and infuriated about this.

Q. Well! This is a platform for you to counter all the gossip and accusations.

A. The very first problem started with a claim to ascertain whom the London producer was?

Q. I assume you were the anchor behind all that, and moreover, wasn’t it a partnership, you being one of the co-producers?

A. My agreement with the Sri Lankan producer of Mona Lisa teledrama indicates that I am the still cameraman, the art director and the co-producer in ‘ small print’. However, due to various unfortunate factors all the responsibility fell on my shoulders. This became my having to issue sponsor letters to 14 people to obtain entry visas to Britain and also to provide accommodation, transport, and food for the full team during the entire duration of filming in London.

Q. Don’t you think it was a bit foolish on your part to commit to such an extent in a project costing hundreds of thousands of Pound Sterling?

A. It is my nature to trust friends without reservation and we all do mistakes and learn every day. This is a good lesson for me and I have lost out in every way, financially, reputation wise and most importantly I have a black mark now with the British High Commission in Sri Lanka.

Q. How do you mean, a black mark against your name at the British High Commission in Colombo?

A. ‘Mona Lisa’ was to be filmed in London and in Sri Lanka. Producer was Prasantha Shehan De Mel. The Director was Sugath Samarakoon and the Assistant Director was Priantha Samarakoon (no relation)

Q. Who was responsible for selecting the technical hands and casting?

A. I was told that all the names were selected and proposed to producer by the Director and assistant Director in Sri Lanka. Out of 14 applicatnts, only eight were granted visitor’s visa by the British High Commission in Colombo.

Q. Did you issue sponsor letters for the entire team of eight?

A. At the beginning, they wanted to bring a team of 20! I advised them it was an impossible task and quite unnecessary. Ultimately I had to issue letters for 14 of them, of which only eight were granted visas.

Q. Would you like to go into detail as to what happened next?

A. Yes of course. I am not frightened to speak out the truth for the whole world to hear. When we started filming, I realised that some of the people who came as technicians were incompetent. Naturally, I had to question the Director about this. During subsequent discussions, I came to know that some people had paid money to be incorporated in the list of the team to obtain British visas! The shock wave was when the person who appeared as the Production Manager told in the presence of everyone, that he spent Rs.500,000 (5 Lakhs) to obtain his visa! His intention apparently had been to come to England to learn English! He even threatened the Director with exposure if he tried to harass him too much.

Q. What happened next, and have they gone back?

A. The following day, two of them who claimed to have paid money to obtain visas to come to London disappeared from my house. I was accommodating them up to that moment. Up to now I have no knowledge of their whereabouts !

Q. Very complicated affair indeed, and you are now in a real soup, aren’t you?

A. Yes, you can say it again. I was informed by the Producer Mr. De Mel that the director had forged his (De Mel’s) signature on stolen letterheads to issue false certificates covering work experience to back up visa applications of some members of the team. .

Q. How did the filming come to an end?

A. After completing part of the shooting, Sugath Samarakoon also left my house and refused to return to Sri Lanka to complete the shooting in Sri Lanka. He was responsible for shooting and editing the film in Sri Lanka. His refusal naturally jeopardised the television production - needless to say our whole investment. His period of visa expired on 21 March 2001. I have no knowledge of his movements.

Q. So, what actions have you taken to recover your money and to clear your good name, in your capacity as a co-producer of Mona Lisa film, especially after sponsoring people to come to the UK ?

A. Immediately I contacted the Home Office Immigration Enforcement Agency, The British High Commission in Colombo, Sri Lankan High Commissioner in London and given them full facts and details. As far as I am concerned all the relevant authorities are aware of this situation. But I have lost quite a bit of money by trying to help people. After all, money is not everything in life, and money can be always earned but not a bad reputation and a tarnished name!

Q. What response did you get from all the authorities you wrote to?

A. I was told by the Home Office that if anyone found overstaying in Britain such cases will be severely dealt with legally and deported. I am only disappointed about on the British High Commission’s reply in which they sympathised with my plight but advised me that they would not entertain any sponsorship requests from me or my family in the future ? This is totally unfair after I have been honest and produced all the information with every possible detail to them immediately after the unfortunate incident.

Q. According to the recent report in the Sri Lankan Sunday Observer newspaper on this issue British High Commission was quoted as saying that they had had not received any complaints from you about this !

A. It’s a blatant lie. I have their official e-mail informing me what they said. I am not bothered about what the Home Office or British Government does with regard to absconders with their over stay in the UK, but all I am worried is that there were three persons whom I sponsored for a specific purpose and when they fell out of line I have brought to the notice of the authorities, as a law abiding citizen in this country, and all I expect is to clear my tarnished name because it is very essential for me as I have just started to diversify my career as a producer of films in this country.

Q. What is the latest situation with regard to ‘Mona Lisa’ film, apart from your tragic saga ?

A. Assistant Director returned to Sri Lanka. Several people known to me in Sri Lanka have written to me saying that they have seen him running an office at Delkanda Junction, Nugegoda “ to promote his new business - which is supposed to be sending people abroad to work on films” . It appears that he has edited a half an hour pilot from the material shot in London and is using this to bolster his working experience on films in England as proof to his prospective clients.

Q. Surely this kind of work will jeopardise the chances of anyone coming to England to make a film here in the future, don’t you think so?

A. Of course, Yes. This is the most unfortunate tragedy ever happened to the Sri Lankan film production in England.

Q. What is the producer, Prasantha De Mel’s position now ?

A. He informed me that he had to mortgage his ancestral home and dispose of his wife’s jewellery to finance the project which is now gone through the floor ! He also told me that he has already paid Rs.225,000 to Sugath Samarakoon, who is obliged by law to return to Sri Lanka by 21 March 2001. I too have spent a vast amount of money and wasted my valuable time to complete the shooting in London. Both Prasantha De Mel and I would be in deep deep water if this tele-drama is not successfully completed.

Q. Are you planning to re-structure it and how ?

A. We are facing a problem at present to locate the shooting script in London which has been altered quite a lot from its original. This makes it an impossible task for the Sri Lankan producer to continue with the Sri Lankan section of shooting and to complete the editing. Until the Director returns to Sri Lanka the whole project will hang on a balance, I suppose !

Q. How bitter are you on the whole when you think back on this sad episode.

A. Bitter is not the right word to express my disappointment. Because of this nasty experience I have made an explicit resolution not to get involved in any future co-productions with Sri Lankan based teams. I may be a loser financially on this account, but my feeling is that it would be a greater loss for future film making enthusiasts in London, who would like to seek my co-operation. I would like to make an open appeal through your column.

Q. What would that be ?

A. If anyone comes across the above mentioned people or their whereabouts in England would they please contact me immediately on 07944 000036 as it is vitally important for me, because of the unfortunately situation I am in today after being an official sponsor.