While we’re on a bit of an expressive montage editing kick, here’s one of the documentaries Karel Reisz alluded to, Basil Wright’s Song of Ceylon, made in 1934 for Ceylon Tea Propaganda Bureau. Which is, firstly, an amazing name for an organization, and, secondly, should signal that we’re going to be seeing images of the kinder, gentler side of British colonialism here. (Wright doesn’t seem unaware of the problem; in an interview reported by Senses of Cinema, Wright says, “[In the Caribbean] 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.”) However, it’s also widely acclaimed as a cinematic masterpiece and one of the great documentaries, and Sri Lankan filmmaker Lester James Peries calls it the greatest documentary about Sri Lanka ever made in Sri Lanka.
The sound design was largely the work of Brazilian filmmaker Alberto Cavalcanti and composer Walter Leigh; no sync sound was recorded, and the soundtrack was developed entirely in the studio. Many of the sounds are heavily modified or constructed for emotive value – under the narration, the soundtrack is fairly literal, but there are moments of flying off into introspective, expressive imagery and sound. Quite a few sections seem influenced by the early days of electronic music, presaging to Stockhausen and the like.
I can’t recommend Senses of Cinema’s article on Song of Ceylon highly enough – it’s a great look at the history behind the making of the film, from Basil Wright’s apprenticeship to John Grierson to the history of the 17th century text used as the basis of the narration.