Ray Wijewardene: Saluting a thinker who also tinkered

Working with a Genial Giant: Ray Wijewardene

As a communicator, I look for ways to say more with less. The ‘gold standard’ for brevity was set two centuries ago by the French poet, playwright, novelist and essayist Victor Hugo.

The story goes like this. Victor Hugo was travelling out of town and wanted to know how his latest book was selling. He messaged (telegraphed?) his agent: ?

The agent, not to be outdone, replied: !

Enough said. How I wish I could beat that economy of words…

I have a fondness for both question marks and exclamation marks — I used a good deal of both in my own speaking and writing. I use these as a metaphor in a tribute I just wrote about one of my mentors: Ray Wijewardene.

Ray Wijewardene: An Extraordinary Thinker and Tinkerer has just been published by Groundviews.org. It also appears on the official website about Ray Wijewardene, being formally launched today.

Here are the opening paras of my essay:

“If I had to condense the multi-faceted and fascinating life of Ray Wijewardene, I would reduce it to a whole lot of question marks and exclamation marks. In his 86 years, Ray generated more than his fair share of both.

“He was unpigeonholeable: engineer, farmer, inventor, aviator and sportsman all rolled into one. Whether at work or play, he was an innovative thinker who rose above his culture and training to grasp the bigger picture.”

Full essay: Ray Wijewardene: An Extraordinary Thinker and Tinkerer

The website was built by my team at TVE Asia Pacific (TEVAP) as a public education resource. read TVEAP News story:
TVEAP unveils new website on outstanding Sri Lankan scientist and visionary

Gasping for Fresh Air in Delhi and Colombo: Miles to go before we can breathe easily!

CSE TVEAP Media Briefing on Air Qualitry Issues in Colombo, 27 April 2011

Almost exactly four years ago, I wrote a blog post called Gasp! Asthma on the rise – and we made it all possible. I argued how we who suffer from Asthma — and our numbers keep increasing — are also contributing to making the bad problem worse.

So I write, speak and make films about clean air entirely with an enlightened self interest: I want to breathe more easily. This week, just a few days ahead of the annual World Asthma Day, I once again declared this as I opened a Media Briefing on the Challenges of Air Quality and Mobility Management in South Asian Cities organised in Colombo today by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), New Delhi and TVE Asia Pacific.

I held up my life-saving inhaler that I always carry around wherever I go, and am never more than a few feet away from. This is not theatrics, but drama in real life. Almost exactly a year ago, I was rushed to hospital at night for nebulisation. I don’t suffer such attacks too often, thank goodness, but I also don’t want to take chances — as I can never count on good air in my home city.

And I’m far from being alone. Wherever I go, I find increasing numbers of fellow asthma sufferers: we gripe and groan, but only a few among us realise that our lifestyles, choices and apathy contributes to the worsening quality of our air.

Almost every South Asian city today is reeling under severe air pollution and gridlocked urban traffic congestion. Colombo, a medium sized city by South Asian standards, has the (slight) advantage of the sea breeze flushing out part of its polluted air — but Greater Colombo is still struggling with polluting fuels, outdated vehicle technologies and rising numbers of private vehicles leading to massive congestion. Air quality levels vary considerably as we travel to the interior of the island, but some provincial cities now have mounting air pollution problems.

Finding the 'Common Air' in everybody's self interest...

This is why we collaborated with CSE, which has a long track record in knowledge-based advocacy for clean air in India and other countries of developing Asia, to organise this event. It was an open forum where air quality experts in Sri Lanka and India engaged Sri Lankan journalists and broadcasters on the status of Sri Lanka’s air quality and what it can learn from the neighbouring countries.

In my remarks, I said: “The quest for clean air in developing Asia is much more than a simple pollution story. It has many layers and complex links to government policies, regulation, industrial lobbies and technology options.

I added: “Our big challenge, as professional story-tellers, is to ask tough questions, seek clarity and then connect the dots for our audiences. At stake is our health, prosperity and indeed our very lives. Air pollution kills, slowly but surely!”

See my PowerPoint presentation:

Read more: Gasping for Fresh Air, Seeking More Liveable Cities in South Asia

Taya Diaz: Amiable tour guide to a (biological) Treasure Island

Taya Diaz conducts film making master class during Wildscreen 2011 in Colombo

“Taya Diaz has the shortest name in Sri Lanka but is a big man with a personality to match and a bushy black beard. Apart from being an excellent guide with good knowledge of all aspects of Sri Lankan Wildlife, he’s also a writer and film maker and is excellent company.”

That’s how a bird-watching website once described Taya Diaz, Sri Lankan conservationist turned wildlife film maker.

During the past two decades, Taya has collaborated in making over 20 full-length international wildlife documentaries, all showcasing Sri Lanka’s rich biological diversity and ecosystems. He has been a scientific investigator, presenter, narrator or Sinhalese scriptwriter.

One of his earliest involvements in international film making was with The Temple Troop. Made in 1997, for the BBC and Discovery Channel, it documented a year in the life of a troop of monkeys living in Sri Lanka’s ancient city of Polonnaruwa. These monkeys have been the subject of a long-running study by the Smithsonian Institution’s Primate Biology Program.

Trained as a scientist, Taya has worked in a number of field based conservation projects including the Smithsonian study of monkeys. But it’s as a wildlife and natural history that he now makes a name both in Sri Lanka and overseas.

The Urban Elephant (2000, for PBS/National Geographic), and The Last Tusker (2000, for BBC/Discovery) are two other productions that used Taya’s ground knowledge and scientific expertise. He has provided local liaison for broadcasters such as New Zealand TV, Canal+, Discovery channel, and BBC1.

Taya Diaz: Enough stories to last a lifetime!

For all these reasons, Taya was a natural choice when TVE Asia Pacific was asked to recommend a Sri Lankan film maker to present a master class when the Wildscreen traveling film festival held in Colombo from 17 to 19 February 2011. His master class, titled “Untold Stories of Sri Lanka”, looked at Sri Lanka’s as yet largely untapped potential for authentic, factual stories related to wildlife, natural history and the environment.

He explained the premise for his master class: “Sri Lanka is a pot of plenty in every aspect — the opportunities for a documentary filmmaker are astounding. But sadly, what most audiences see on the airwaves is very standard and boringly similar, touching on the same topics year in and year out.”

Taya feels that documentary films and TV programmes are also essential for educating Sri Lankans about their own natural heritage. Sri Lanka has an impressively high number of plant and animal species for its relatively small land area — which makes it one of the most biologically diverse countries in the world.

“Sri Lankan naturalists, wildlife experts and environmentalists should collaborate more closely with film makers and/or broadcasters to make more local films aimed at local audiences,” he said during a panel discussion I moderated on February 17. “This is essential for raising awareness on environment and sustainable development issues as Sri Lanka pursues rapid economic development after the war.”

Read TVEAP News story on Taya’s master class: Story telling through the local eyes vital, says Taya Diaz

Bizarro: Turn off your brain cells before the screening!

A candid request from the management...

We’re all familiar with the request at cinemas, theatres and concert halls for everyone to turn off their cell phones (a.k.a. mobiles) before the show starts. Not that everyone complies — there are enough deviants among us who just can’t disengage themselves from their electronic leashes even for a couple of hours.

But here’s a new twist to that common (and much needed) request: I came across this in the Bizarro cartoon, which offers some fascinating insights into our topsy turvy times. There are times when I feel that every TV set should come with this line printed on top!

Everyone has a story about cell phones going off at the wrong time in the wrong place. Here’s my favourite.

Together with my TVEAP team, I was running the 2004 AIDS Film Festival in Bangkok, Thailand, during the 15th International AIDS Conference, in July 2004. The festival was held across three venues, and showcased over 50 film titles from around the world — we had nearly half the film makers turning up in person to be introduce their films.

One such film maker, an academic turned film maker, was eagerly talking about his film (an excellent one, unusual for academics) when somebody’s cell phone went off.

The film maker wasn’t amused. He told the full house: “Unless you’re a person with nuclear trigger responsibility, can everyone PLEASE turn off their cell phones?”

But the cell phone ring continued, getting louder.

It took a full minute for its owner to be found — who turned out to be our speaker himself! His own cell phone had been ringing in his trouser pocket all this time, disrupting his own talk.

Moral of the story: Turn off your cell phone at a public performance, especially if it’s your own performance!

Asia Pacific Rice Film Award 2008/09 – And the winner is…

Winners of the Asia Pacific Rice Film Award 2008-2009 were announced this week. The award was established ‘to recognise excellence in audio-visual creations on rice-related issues in Asia, where most of the world’s rice is grown and consumed’.

The co-organisers, Pesticide Action Network Asia and the Pacific (PAN AP), TVE Asia Pacific (TVEAP) and Public Media Agency (PMA) of Malaysia, invited innovative film-makers from the Asia Pacific region to submit short creative television, video or cinematic films on rice. I was part of the regional panel of judges.

The film winning the first prize is titled SRI – Challenging Traditions, Transforming Lives (10 mins, 2008). It is directed by Gautam Chintamani in Haryana, India.

I found it a well-focused, positive story compellingly told, with an unhurried script — just enough information, not bombarding the viewer with facts and figures. It’s about a new, more efficient way of growing rice called System of Rice Intensification (SRI).

But this is far from a boring instructional film. It focuses on lives of farmers on and off the field (e.g. SRI’s benefits to women farmers – such as less labour and time intensive). The visual experience is completed by the excellent camera work, sound track and seamless editing – altogether a highly professional production that is also a persuasive advocacy film.

Here’s the official synopsis for the film, taken from Vatavaran 2009 film festival website:
A revolutionary method, System of Rice Intensification (SRI) requires almost no standing water for paddy to grow and is fast transforming the rice cultivation. Developed by a French priest Henri De Launi in the 1980’s in Madagascar, SRI not only uses almost half of the water required but drastically reduces the physical labor associated with rice farming besides increasing the yield by almost one and a half times. For a country like India rice is more than just a mere crop.

There are myths attached to its cultivation. While SRI offers an alternate and a very sustainable method of growing rice it also battles hard with the age-old traditional approach of growing rice. The perils of global warming, the drying up of perennial rivers and the excessive use of fertilizers pose numerous threats to rice cultivation; making life very hard for the humble farmer. SRI offers a workable solution to all problems related to traditional rice cultivation.

SRI- Challenging Tradition, Transforming Lives looks at how SRI is helping the modern farmer cultivate India’s traditional crop without the burden that it had become. In addition the film highlights the transformation in the lives of millions of women who toil the hardest in Indian farmers thanks to SRI reducing the need for manual labor. To its critics the System of Rice Intensification might not be the greatest thing but the fact that SRI significantly reduces the demand for water for rice cultivation makes it worthwhile in the current scenario of the world.

Starting out in 2001-02, Gautam Chintamani worked in the capacity of Associate Producer on India’s first daily news spoof show Khabarein Khabardar. There on he did freelance writing for numerous shows for MTV, Sony and Zee amongst others. He has written and directed an 18 min short film, Alterations. In addition to writing for television Gautam Chintamani regualraly writes for the print and electronic media. He has extensively written for Man’s World, Hard News, Media Trans-Asia and MidDay, rediff.com and Buzz in Town. Gautam also worked in the capacity of Associate Director and Executive Producer of the Hindi feature film, Amavas. Of his television work the law drama, Siddhanth (Star One) was nominated for an Emmy in the International Drama section. Gautam’s episode dealing with an HIV positive college student who fights for her basic right to education was selected as a case study for a Writers workshop conducted by Hero’s Group in Hyderabad & Chennai.

Making of ‘The Greenbelt Reports’ recalled in ‘The Green Pen’

The process of producing and distributing TVE Asia Pacific’s educational TV series, The Greenbelt Reports, is showcased in a new book on environmental journalism in South Asia, just published by Sage, a globally operating company that specialises in bringing out academic and professional books.

The book, titled The Green Pen: Environmental Journalism in India and South Asia, is edited by two senior Indian journalists, both good friends – Keya Acharya of Bangalore, and Frederick Noronha based in Goa. (In 2007, Fred and I co-edited Communicating Disasters: An Asia Pacific Resource Book.)

Arranged in 10 sections, the book brings together contributions from three dozen journalists, broadcasters and film makers in South Asia. It opens with a foreword by Darryl D’Monte, one time editor of The Times of India and Chair, Forum of Environmental Journalists of India (FEJI).

I co-wrote the chapter titled ‘Dispatches from the Frontline: Making of The Greenbelt Reports’ with my colleague Manori Wijesekera, TVEAP’s Regional Programme Manager. I was researcher and script writer of the 12-part, 4-country series that we made in 2006, in which Manori was series producer. The series looked at the environmental lessons of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

The title reflects the lingering print bias in media related discussions: in our case, the content we produced was disseminated on broadcast television, narrowcast DVD and online. We wielded cameras rather than pens, but are still very glad to share our experience in this book.

Keya Acharya (left) and Fred Noronha

The publisher’s blurb says: “This collection of essays by some of the most prominent environmental journalists in Indian and South Asia gives deep insights into their profession and its need and relevance in society. It looks at this ‘specialisation’ of journalism both in the past and the present. Underlying almost all the essays is the changing nature of media in the region and the dilemmas facing environmental journalists. The varied background of the writers ensures the showcasing of a wide range of realities and experiences from the field. Contributions include essays by Darryl D’Monte, the late Anil Agarwal and Sunita Narain, among others.”

“This is the first book of its kind on environmental journalism, which would be an excellent resource to aid the future evolution of the enterprise in the region. Apart from essays from India, there are contributions from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal and the Maldives. The book will interest a wide readership, any informed reader, besides journalists and environmentalists.”

It’s an honour to be part of a book which features the work of respected seniors like Anil, Darryl and Sunita – all of who have influenced my own career and I’m privileged to count among my friends (alas, Anil is no longer with us). In fact, I have either met, worked with or am friends with more than half the three dozen contributing authors of this book.

Who says South Asia is large?

More in TVEAP news story: The Greenbelt Reports featured in new book on environmental journalism in South Asia

Asia Pacific Rice Film Award: Say thank you to rice in moving images!

Have a rice day!

Have a rice day!

If an alien spaceship were to randomly descend to the one third of our planet that is not covered by ocean, chances are high that it would land on a rice field.

So I was told a few years ago, when spending time with some rice researchers. Rice is the most widely cultivated food crop in the world. It is also the most important staple food for a large part of the world’s human population, especially in East Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, Latin America and the West Indies. From risotto to sushi to paella, food-savvy consumers are using rice as the main ingredient in recipes from around the world. Rice lends substance and texture to many dishes.

Despite all this, rice is under some pressures both economically and culturally. For one thing, it has been taken for granted by many of those who regularly have a ‘rice day’ and think nothing further about it.

That’s the reason for the first-ever Asia Pacific Rice Film Award – a regional competition to celebrate the role of rice in Asian cultures and societies. This is a regional partnership involving Pesticide Action Network Asia Pacific (PAN-AP), my own organisation TVE Asia Pacific and Public Media Agency of Malaysia.

APRFA logo

APRFA logo

I have just given an interview to TimeOut Kuala Lumpur magazine, October 2009 issue. In my capacity as head of the seven-member international jury, I answered questions from the magazine’s Brian Kwan. Here is the full text of the interview, which is also available online here:

How effective do you think this award will be?
When we set out on this joint effort, we posed two big questions: What feeds 3 billion people? And what is slowly but surely disappearing without anyone noticing it? The answer to both questions is Rice! We wanted this film award to draw attention to the central role that rice plays in Asian and Pacific cultures and economies. The measure of our success will be a long term one, and will depend on how many take part in this competition and how far and wide we will be able to distribute their creative efforts.

Why do you think Asia is in need for a wake up call on the subject of rice?
Rice one of our most revered treasures in the Asia Pacific, and many of us take it for granted. It is central to the Asian way of life — its cultural heritage and diversity, spirituality and traditions. This precious rice heritage is under threat from corporate or industrialized agriculture, neo-liberal globalization, private control of the rice seeds, and genetic engineering of the rice genome. Rice lands are also being torn away from small rice farming communities in the name of “development” projects such as special economic zones, cash cropping, and agro-fuel plantations.

Time Out KLPesticide Action Network Asia Pacific (PAN-AP) has for the last two decades championed the food sovereignty of the grassroots, namely, farmers, agricultural workers, indigenous people and consumers. In 2003, PAN-AP launched the SAVE OUR RICE CAMPAIGN. It is founded on Five Pillars of Rice Wisdom: Rice Culture, Community Wisdom, Biodiversity based Ecological Agriculture, Safe Food and Food Sovereignty. Last year, PAN-AP joined TVE Asia Pacific and Public Media Agency to organise this film competition as part of the on-going campaign. We all share the ideals of promoting rice in Asia and the Pacific.

APRFA co-organisers

APRFA co-organisers

What would you be looking out for in the short films?
The Asia Pacific Rice Film Award will be presented to creators of short innovative television, video or cinematic films that effectively educate the public on the role of rice in Asian cultures, economies and communities/societies. The films should use the ‘Five Pillars of Rice Wisdom’ as guiding principles. They should enhance appreciation of the rice heritage of Asia; raise public awareness of the issues on and threats to rice; highlight the role of small farmers, women in rice; strengthen the people’s resolve and action to save rice; and encourage a stronger role for youth in rice.

Any tips for the participants?
We are looking for short films that are innovative, imaginative and ultimately effective in raising public awareness. Rice may be a pervasive topic in Asia, but the threats to rice are not yet widely appreciated. How do we take this message to the three billion rice growers and eaters of Asia using moving images? How do we engage the YouTube generation – predominantly youthful populations of Asia – with films that open eyes and provoke minds to think further? What would work best — factual reportage, drama, humour, performing arts or other formats? These questions are worth pondering. As organisers, we are open to all formats. We want to be surprised!

After all this, what would be the next step/project?
As I said, this is an on-going campaign, so the winning and commended entries will become new tools and resources for that campaign. Making films and ranking them is only the first half of our shared challenge. We then have to get these films distributed far and wide, using broadcast, narrowcast, webcast and mobile platforms. Three billion people means six billion eye balls that need to be reached! That should keep all of us busy for a while…

Read more about the Asia Pacific Rice Film Award 2008/2009

Deadline for entries is 31 December 2009!