Sri Lanka: Personal Notes
Updated: Feb 2
By Paul Mitchnick:
Priests Under Repair: In the country, there are many Buddhist temples, and all are different. This one had priest statues guarding the temple. They were wrapped and not visible from the road. They were waiting to be refreshed.
In the late fall of 2017, my wife, Michaelin, and I traveled to Sri Lanka for six weeks. There was a commercial for me to shoot for a local production company and hopefully a much-needed holiday afterward.
Excitement accompanies me on such assignments. What am I going to see; whom am I going to meet? It’s also very special encountering something that I might have seen as a kid in National Geographic or a movie. Perhaps it is the somewhat romanticized two-dimensional image coming to life that creates excitement. Of course, it is never that postcard image in real life; it is more visceral and way better.
Gangaramaya Candles: Lighting prayer candles at the Gangaramaya Buddhist Temple, the oldest in Colombo dating back to the mid 1800s.
Travel and adventure have always been part of the work of a cinematographer that appeals to me. Most of the time, I experience places on my own, and I usually carry a still camera. I believe you see the world a little differently when you have a camera in your hand (whether you take a photo or not).
On my time off, I just pick a destination—for one reason or another—and take photos. For years I tried keeping a journal and always stopped. But I never stopped taking pictures; and finally, I realized my photos were my journal.
Christmas Presents: Despite Christians being only 7% of the population, Christmas is really huge, and this was a roadside vendor selling dolls for Christmas. There was something about them being wrapped in plastic and bound that just seemed so very wrong.
The world has been going to the island of Sri Lanka, once called Ceylon, forever in search of its riches. Merchants settled in this important stop along a trade route. History is everywhere. Sinhalese concentrated in the west but scattered through out the island. Muslims in the south and Tamils in the north offer an incredibly diverse culture. Add a veneer of British, Dutch, and Portuguese and you start to get the taste.
It’s a country of sensory adventure and eye candy: tea, spices, fragrances, silk scarves, temples; near India, but not Indian. A place of elephants, leopards, rice fields, exotic fruits, striking colors, and really big rain.
A place of adventure and maybe danger.
My work in Sri Lanka was located in Colombo, a city of 2 million and the capital on the west coast. Tangelle in the south was our beach-holiday destination, and Kandy was an impromptu trip on a narrow gauge rail train to the heart of the interior tea country.
Train to Kandy: In the middle of our stay in Colombo, we found ourselves with an unexpected five days off. Hmmmm. What about a train trip to Kandy? The center of tea, the home of Sri Lanka’s most religious Buddhist temple, the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic. So we booked the observation car for the scenic view. Imagine our surprise when the observation window was at the back of the train, so you saw where you had been; not where you were going.
Often I would go stand between the cars and look out at 180-degree vistas and enjoy whatever landscape I was going through. This train route dates back to the 1920s, although there have been trains in Sri Lanka since 1858. We were treated very nicely on the train; a gentleman gave up his assigned seat so that I could sit with Michaelin. A couple offered us snacks. The 4-hour train trip takes you through the countryside past rice fields, Buddhist temples, and great open spaces. Not an express train, it's one that stops at every town and there are people walking along the tracks near every stop.
Rice Fields: Everywhere that was flat that didn’t have a small town or temple had a rice field. The small trees at the back on the walkway between the fields were for shade and rest for the rice cobras that roam here.
Traveling through the mountains was another experience. Up the big climb before Kandy, the train goes very, very slowly. There was lots of gazing into the jungle, with villages and mountains in the background. Fantastic.
Sri Lanka is a lush and beautiful country where it is always summer. There are monsoons all year. Fortunately, the monsoons travel around the island at different times of the year, so it is always summer somewhere on the island.
The Temple of the Sleeping Buddha: About an hour by tuk-tuk from Tangelle is the Temple of the Sleeping Buddha. It dates back 2,500 years and is the oldest Buddhist temple in Sri Lanka. It is a five-level affair with 2,500 steep stairs to go along with its 2,500 years. The Buddha is carved out of a cave excavated into the rock. The cave itself is pretty dark. The artwork is continually refreshed by artisans who do only that.
The countryside is lush, both on the plains and in the mountains. Because of the largely Buddhist culture, seeing Buddhist temples in the midst of a field is not uncommon but always great. The temples are striking in their numbers and dominance over the landscape.
A culture as diverse as Sri Lanka's has had its tensions and tragic clashes. However, we neither saw nor felt that. My crew was as varied as the country. But violent troubles resurfaced just after our departure.
I loved the friendliness of the Sri Lankan people. Never once did we feel anything but comfortable and safe no matter where or how we went. Our travels were by train, tuk-tuk, and bus, and people were nothing but kind to us.
Anawella: While staying in our $40-a-night, very clean, very pretty room near the beach in Tangelle, we decided to treat ourselves to a nice dinner. A 30-minute walk through the jungle took us to the Anawella Resort. Wow. There was nothing about this resort that wasn’t designer. Designer flowers at the entrance, designer palm trees reflected in the designer pool, the designer garden in the men’s washroom; there was no direction that you looked at that wasn’t some version of designer perfect. Stunning, just stunning. The dinner was okay, but the best part was the designer drink in front of the designer sunset behind the designer palms.
We got to see ancient things; we got to see historic things. There is something about being in an ex-commonwealth country that is both familiar and foreign at the same time. Sometimes it felt as if we were in an E. M. Forster novel. The swank Swimming Club in Colombo near ancient Buddhist temples. Our colonial hotel in Kandy dated back to the 1840s. Older downtown Colombo looked like parts of Jamaica and parts of India. The rich, colorful religious artwork; whether Hindu, Buddhist, or Muslim, didn’t matter to me. It was great to experience them. They have been wrought by hand and are maintained.
Being surrounded by big water is like being surrounded by life. I loved the view of the Indian Ocean from our hotel room at the Ozo Hotel (room 810) in Columbo. Nothing but the sea. Always changing, always moving, always beautiful.
Watching Night Fall: From the roof of the Ozo Hotel in Colombo; it faced west, and the views from the window were sea. Nothing but sea. They afforded us not only sunsets but also vistas of incoming weather.
The train trip to Kandy was great—all of it. The views from the observation car or even between the cars was fascinating—whether plains, mountains, or jungle.
Last Beach Morning: Our last morning on the beautiful Mawalla Beach outside of Tangelle.
Every market I went to had something wonderful— most often the people.
Young Princess: This young girl was in the commercial we shot. She was the young princess and loved both being made-up and dressed-up. Laws around children on set are not the same as in North America, and she endured 18-hour days like the rest of us. Dressed in a traditional costume, she was very present and happy to be a princess.
Bridesmaids: These young women were bridesmaids for a wedding that was taking place in a small hotel south of Colombo. I asked if it was okay to take their photo, and they said yes. After one shot, they became self-conscious but still made a connection with me. (It reminds me of hear no evil, see no evil, and speak no evil.)
Watercress Woman: I go to markets wherever I can. This one is in Tangelle. The food was great in Sri Lanka, and I am always curious about what goes into what I am eating and cooking. While watching her sort her watercresses, she saw me watching, seemingly with acceptance. Her countenance and grace make her one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen.
Hardware Store Patron: Outside a small village in the southern province was a dry-goods store that had no door and faced the street. It had a long counter and a number of stools. (It was somewhat reminiscent of Floyd’s Barbershop on The Andy Griffith Show). People were buying things and hanging out at the counter—some just sitting, some talking. A few people approached me to take their photo. This man’s face has haunted me ever since.
All my photos trigger rich memories, but the images that touch me the most are the informal portraits. Portraiture is the most intimate photography. In Sri Lanka I was most touched by the immediacy and openness of people to me and to my camera. When I see this in people who allow me to take their photo, I am always moved.
Fisherwomen: Just outside of Tangelle, these women were part of a fish-net-hauling gang. This is very hard work and goes on for around 2 hours without a break. One senses a little embarrassment but pride in being made a focus of someone’s attention. I helped them haul the nets.
Hambantota Mother: While we were in Hambantota (a primarily Buddhist fishing town with a large Muslim minority), I made a photograph of this woman and her children. Her children were distracted and just kind of left. She seemed a little relieved. I took another photo. This photo represents a quiet, peaceful joy.
School Day Photo: I am in Tangelle in the early morning. The later morning and afternoon are just way too hot for someone who deals with snow four months a year. This young girl was all done up in her very best dress for school photo day.
My take on photographing and meeting people in that way is tied to the notion that people share more of what makes us human than what makes us different. What people reveal is universal, and the more intimate, the more human.
What bond do you establish with someone that allows you to witness something of who they are? Sometimes it lasts a fraction of a second. And what have they revealed to you?
Paul Mitchnick is a cinematographer living and working out of Toronto, Canada. He has spent time with many gifted filmmakers in his career—Sean Penn, Lawrence Kasdan and John Woo as Directors, as well as many Oscar winning cinematographers. For the last decade, Paul has been Director of Photography on award-winning Canadian Independent Features and television Movies of the Week. He shot KEIF AL-HAL -the first feature film produced by a Saudi Arabian company. Whenever on assignment, Paul travels with his still camera and has taken photographs all over the globe. "I make my living looking at things and when I have my still camera -- opportunities kind of present themselves. Whether those things are looking for me or I am looking for them; I am not sure."