de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2004). Regaining Airtime for Sri Lanka. Serendipity. April 2004. Page 12.
Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne lobbies for streamlining film crew access to our wilderness
“Two Sloth Bear at Palugaswala Number 2, within filming range. Do you hear us? over.” The short-wave walkie talkie crackled into life and the response came back swiftly from Marc Strickson, a Director of Oxford Scientific Films. “On our way, on our way!”. Priyantha, our jeep driver jockeyed our jeep into a suitable position for filming, a position we would relinquish when the film crew from Oxford Scientific films arrived with Shirley Perera, their tour leader. With Marc was Colin Budd an experienced cameraman and James Petch a professional sound man. Presenting the series was Lyndal Davies with fashion model good looks. Oxford Scientific Films is one of the best known natural history film makers in the world. Having them down in Sri Lanka is a great plus for Sri Lankan efforts to promote itself as a big game safari destination. But it had not been easy to get them down.
Fortunately Chandrika Maelge, who is experienced in handling film crews had spent the better past of the last two months working around the barriers which we as a nation have erected to discourage good publicity. Most film crews do not require special privileges inside a national park such as the need to construct hides, travel on foot, engage in night filming etc. Therefore a sensible strategy would be to have a policy of treating almost every film crew like normal paying visitors subject to the same privileges as normal visitors. Even for wildlife film crews on a short assignments of a few weeks, this would work fine. Unfortunately we demand the full monty from every film crew with the result, some imply stay away.
Sri Lanka erects a lot of obstacles for film crew to enter our parks and reserves. We should ideally make it as simple as for the printed media. For example, if I were to meet a journalist or magazine editor, I could take him or her down to a national park the same day. She may take a number of still photographs and subsequently publish an article which we would all be pleased about. But even the most prestigious publications in Europe may only have a relatively small circulation of around 50,000 copies a month. A film crew will usually reach a minimum of two million. A successful company like Oxford Scientific Films would pre-sell the production world-wide and reach a target audience of over eighty million people worldwide. The irony is, to reach an audience of 50,000 in a magazine or newspaper is easy. Any printed media travel writer can enter a national park or reserve freely by buying tickets on entry. But when we can reach a few million people though a film crew, we go to extraordinary lengths to make it difficult.
Take the handling of the OSF crew for example. Like any other crew they needed to submit details of their company background, copies of their identification and a copy of the script. This was preceded by dialogue with the London office of the Sri Lanka Tourist Board who made a recommendation to the Sri Lanka High Commission who in turn made a recommendation to the Foreign Ministry for the issue of a media visa. In parallel, the SLTB office in London had to make a recommendation to the SLTB office in Colombo to assist the film crew. The SLTB office in Colombo duly issued a letter of request to the Department of Wildlife Conservation to allow OSF to film in three of the national parks. Seeking permission from the DWL with details of the film crew, company background and script will take a minimum of two to three weeks.
With a general film crew already in Sri Lanka, there is absolutely no chance of suggesting a diversion to a national park even for half a day’s filming. Filming opportunistically in a national park or reserve is totally impossible as prior permission has to be obtained from the head office. These conditions even apply to local film crews. On a number of times I have taken film crews shooting for business programs to the Yala Safari Game Lodge and confined their filming to areas outside the national park. I often have neither the time nor the inclination to overcome the red tape which prevents the DWLC from promoting the national parks under its jurisdiction. As a nation, we are past masters in shooting ourselves in the foot.
If as a nation we are serious about forging ahead, it is time to take a few simple intelligent steps to remove unnecessary obstacles. Of course it would be more acceptable if the suggestion came from a foreign consultant hired with foreign aid money at USD 500 a day.
The writer is the CEO of a Wildlife & Luxury Travel company. To receive his free, monthly wildlife e-Newsletter, e-mail him at with “Subscribe Wildlife News” in the message header.