Even that Robert Flaherty made the very first documentary, Nanook of the North (1922), Basil Wright has often seen as the man who defined what documentary was. His films might have been the first ones that were actually called documentaries. So he defined the term, what is the philosophy behind it, what should it entail and what is the purpose of it. The Song of Ceylon is an early documentary with commentary tracks, it deals with a colony of the United Kingdom.
The Song of Ceylon is divided into four sequences. Through these sequences Basil Wright has the time to describe the living, the religion and the working of the colony. It's a lyrical film that tries to build a picture of a colony under the management of the empire and succeed in that. Today and in the 1930's this genre, traveling films weren't successful and the genre was hopeless. So the people of that time were amazed when they saw The Song of Ceylon, which was a perfect film risen from the ashes of the genre.
What is very untypical of The Song of Ceylon is that it doesn't look down on the people who are portrayed at all. 1934 this is the time of imperialism, the political, economical and cultural exploitation of the colonial possessions. But Basil Wright shows the life of the colony with honor without thought of superiority. And the main thing that should not be forgotten while watching The Song of Ceylon is that its maker is British. The man behind the camera is a citizen of the empire, this is part of the philosophy of documentary and should be noticed while enjoying this gem.
The film's criticism is hidden, it may be hard to see, but it is there. Why it is hard to see today is the reason that the film won't surprise its audience as much as it did in 1934. It was unbelievable for an European to look and observe the people living in their colonial possessions without thoughts of superiority. For instance in The Song of Ceylon the religion, Buddhism is portrayed as it is. The film does not laugh at it or point out the flaws of it. It shows it just as it would show Christianity. To me The Song of Ceylon was a very touching film, because it shows how similar we are and there is no room for superiority, we're all equal, no one is better than the other. The criticism towards imperialism is hidden behind the pictures we see.
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