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Define Insanity?

average rating is 2 out of 5


William Hemingway


Posted on:

Aug 28, 2023

Film Reviews
Define Insanity?
Directed by:
Dylan Nanayakkara
Written by:
Citizens of Ambatale

On 15th May 2016 Sri Lanka was hit by tropical storm, ‘Roanu’ which brought with it unprecedented flooding and devastation. Whereas Sri Lanka is no stranger to tropical storms or other extreme weather events and certain regions are used to localised flooding, nobody was prepared for the level of rainfall which the storm would bring or for the amount of widespread destruction which would be left behind in its aftermath. It seems this unpreparedness ran right through the administration of almost all of the local districts in Sri Lanka and all the way up to centralised government, as twenty-two out of twenty-five districts in the country were affected by the severity of the floods.


Official UN statistics show that ‘Roanu’ caused the worst flooding in over two decades, with the last big flood in living memory coming in 1989, and that hundreds of homes had been destroyed. Eighty-four people were confirmed dead after the storm with one hundred and sixteen people missing and nearly quarter of a million displaced. With such a large scale emergency there was an urgent and definite need for assistance and aid to reach large sections of the country. Many rural communities became cut off by the floods, with no access to shelter, food or clean drinking water and it was these communities which suffered the greatest catastrophes when no help came.


With the waters taking over a week to recede and still only minimal or no involvement from government administrations being provided, people obviously began to ask questions and began to see the direct results of bad town planning, underfunded infrastructure and unchecked expansion. With this in mind documentary film-maker, Dylan Nanayakkara took his camera into one such affected district, to the township of Ambatale on the Kelani River, and began to record the thoughts and feelings of the local residents, as well as finding out what they thought of the official response and who they thought was to blame for the lack of compensation or a clean-up operation.


Subheading his film as ‘A short documentary to promote better disaster risk management in Sri Lanka’, Nanayakkara is not hiding his bias or his intent for the short film. He took his camera into the affected area only four days after the waters receded to get as immediate, instinctive and raw a reaction as possible – and this is exactly what he receives. The people are visibly shaken and anxious but they are keen to have their story shared and for people to see what has happened to them. They talk at a hundred miles an hour relaying everything that’s been taken from their lives and their livelihoods and are unanimous in their proportioning of blame squarely upon the shoulders of local and government officials, some of whom turned up to pay lip-service then ran away again and others who didn’t even bother to turn up in the first place.


The unfortunate thing about Nanayakkara’s film is perhaps its lasting relevance. Covering an event which happened over seven years ago and reporting on its immediate aftermath puts Define Insanity?into a very specific timeframe. Yes, the stories told and the people affected are incredibly important, and of course the failings of the institutions of government need to be exposed and investigated, but can Nanayakkara’s film really hope to increase awareness or to hold people to account seven years on?


Also, there’s not a lot else going on in Define Insanity? other than listening to people speak about their ordeals. The black and white photography adds nothing to the narrative, nor does it add gravitas which supposedly it was intended to do. There are times when information cards and subtitles fill the screen at the same time and it’s incredibly difficult to process all of the information at once, especially when the survivors are releasing all of their frustrations in one go and talking so fast as they do so.


It seems that Nanayakkara could have had more impact taking the testimonials of the people he talked to, typing them up and compiling them together into a report which he could then file with the relevant authorities, forcing them to acknowledge and face up to their failings. Instead, we can only hope that Define Insanity? had the desired impact seven years ago as it’s unlikely to have any lasting legacy at this point.

About the Film Critic
William Hemingway
William Hemingway
Short Film, Documentary, World Cinema
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