Beyond The Empire Marketing Board (EMB):
Nonfiction Films by Basil Wright, Mark Lapore, and Meredith Lackey from 1934-2014
Filmmaker Meredith Lackey in person!

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Wednesday, April 8th, $5-10
Doors open at 7:30 pm
Program starts at 8 pm
The Nightingale Cinema, 1084 N. Milwaukee, Chicago, IL

When I was a very young man and had no resources, Grierson sent me around the Caribbean in 1933 to film the British Colonies; Jamaica, Barbados and all that chain of islands. I was alone and toting a camera about and I wasn’t very experienced. I wished I could have managed to say more about the diabolical capitalist or British Colonial policy which was always so nice and fat. I got a bit of it into Song of Ceylon the next year, but, you see, if you’re working for the Empire Marketing Board in the British Colonies, you can’t do it. -Basil Wright from Daniella Gitlin in To Experience Song of Ceylon (*)

This program is made of three films that step beyond the traditional terms of nonfiction cinema, which John Grierson called “documentary” while head of Britain’s Empire Marketing Board. The program starts with Basil Wright’s Song of Ceylon. Wright remarked on shooting the film:

“I started shooting the film with a logic I couldn’t understand. I couldn’t imagine why I was forcing myself or being forced by something inside me to shoot the material.”-Basil Wright (***)

I believe Depression in the Bay of Bengal, A by Mark Lapore and Shwebontha by Meredith Lackey share this intuitive approach that Wright excitedly describes: interacting with a specific moment and place through a moving image camera. Their films favor the organicism of learning by seeing and listening over the strict dictations of producers protecting clients’ interests, their own expectations, or funding proposals. Furthermore, Lapore’s film, Depression in the Bay of Bengal, was funded by a Fulbright Grant to revisit – and possibly recreate – Wright’s Songs of Ceylon.

Wright’s film was formally innovative and visually brilliant but his experience was not to be revisited. Each of the places he filmed still exist, but thirteen years of ethnic war have colored the way in which those places can be portrayed. I have made a film about travelling and living in a distant place which looks at aspects of daily life and where the war shadows the quotidian with a dark and rumbling step. -Mark Lapore (**)

While this program juxtaposes both Wright’s and Lapore’s directly inspired works it also includes Shwebontha by Meredith Lackey. Lackey’s film combines stylistic inspiration from both filmmakers sharing their concerns for social, economic, and political injustice while employing studious cinematography and experimental forms. This approach expresses her critical insights and experiences of economic and political development in Burma (officially known as Myanmar) as it struggles with the injustice caused by well-funded forces and interests larger than the individual. Over the span of roughly eighty years all three films -to borrow a quotation from Tom Gunning:

“Should be seen by anyone who cares about the cinema and who cares about the way this image machine can display the world we have made and, especially, the aspects we prefer to ignore or forget.”  (****)

Program Notes:

1. Song of Ceylon (1934) by Basil Wright, 38 minutes, 16mm

The Empire Marketing Board gave Wright a “four month schedule and free hand” to create the film and “Wright decided to film other footage with a more elaborate project in mind, inspired by his experience of Buddhism, the beauty of the island, and his uneasiness with British colonial rule.”(*) As Wright montages the imagery of the radio transmission room and the Ceylonese landscape, an experimental soundtrack created by Walter Leigh collides into a “surging mess, and the viewer experiences the horror, if only for a moment, of empire.”(*)

2. Depression in the Bay of Bengal, A (1996) by Mark Lapore, 28 minutes, 16mm

This film is both diaristic and metaphorical, both on account of my observations of everyday life as well as an indirect record of the war and of the tense atmosphere which permeates life there. The overwhelming sensation in the film is that of both physical and metaphorical distance: the distance between the traveler and Sri Lankans, the miles traveled as indicated by the persistent sound of trains, the distance between the camera and the subject, time as distance as evoked both by the historical footage and the notion of trains as a nineteenth century mode of transport, and by the black leader at the close of the film over which an article about an explosion in Sri Lanka is read. Past experience, whether local or far away, exists only in the mind and for the duration of the last three minutes of the film, mental images are the ones that play on the screen. -Lapore (**)

3. Shwebontha (2014) by Meredith Lackey, 12 minutes, 16mm to HD

The signboard builders of Shwebontha Street in Yangon, Burma prompt a search for the sonic and visual traces of a country in transition. Performance of military, labor and sport suffuse the sallow hunger of foreign eyes. Past and future swirl in the peeling bells of global imperative. Production: a lilting arrow incites scalar confusion: Like hydropower. -Lackey

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 ~Special Thanks to the UIC 16mm Archive and Michael Wawzenek for loaning a 16mm print of Song of Ceylon.~

More Information at:






(***) Sari Thomas in “Basil Wright on Art, Anthropology and the Documentary”, Quarterly Review of Film Studies, 4/4 (Autumn 1979).


Programmed by Ian Curry

Filed under: 16mm, archival, artist in attendance, documentary, experimental, film, Uncategorized