Visit to Sri Lanka leads to Ryan Singh's first documentary
January 25, 2018
When filmmaker Ryan Singh accepted an informal lunch date in mid-December 2013 with then Scarborough-Rouge River Member of Parliament (MP) Rathika Sitsabaiesan, the expectation was that their conversation would mostly revolve around the movies.
They met at the ReelWorld Film Festival earlier that year and the screening of ‘Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields’ which Sitsabaiesan co-hosted with Scarborough-Guildwood Liberal MP John McKay in September 2011.
Filmed by civilians, the investigative documentary features the final weeks of the 26-year Sri Lankan civil war that ended in 2009.
During lunch, she inquired about the type of camera she should take to record the trip.
“It might be better to take a cameraman with you who can capture your memories,” suggested Singh who migrated from Guyana in 1993.
Sitsabaiesan, the first Tamil elected to the Canadian federal parliament and the youngest MP in the Greater Toronto Area at the time, liked the idea.
Little did Singh know at the time that his first visit to the Asian continent would lead to his debut documentary expected to be released later this year.
Just 10 days after lunch, Singh and Sitsabaiesan were on a plane on Boxing Day headed to Sri Lanka.
Her family immigrated when she was five years old and this was her first trip back in 27 years to reconnect with family and friends.
“This was a great opportunity to travel with someone who has a contagious personality and whose work I admire,” said Singh, a married father of two children. “It was an also an excellent chance for me to have a personal chaperone who could show me around and give me a real feel for the country.”
Before they left Canada, Sitsabaiesan warned Singh about the island nation’s political instability following the lengthy civil war.
“I took what she said seriously and I recorded all my passwords that I gave to my wife,” he said. “I told her I might not return, but I really wanted to go on the trip.”
On the day they arrived, their driver alerted them that they were being trailed by men on motorbikes.
“That same day, the big news story was about a New Zealand Member of Parliament and Australian senator who were detained before they were able to give a press conference about human rights abuses in the country,” said Singh.
They were charged with breaking visa regulations.
Before travelling from Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital, to Jaffna in the north where Sitsabaiesan has relatives, Singh was warned to be careful about what he was filming.
“I was told to be very cautious with where I was pointing my camera, especially if there were people wearing military uniforms in the vicinity, because there could be serious repercussions,” he related.
While visiting an orphanage on New Year’s Eve, the guide providing Sitsabaiesan with a tour of an orphanage she was considering supporting received a phone call that some people had arrived at the main entrance with a warrant for her arrest.
They managed to slip away without being noticed and went underground for a few hours.
“It just seemed like we were under surveillance everywhere we went,” said Singh. “People were always following us.”
With over 25 hours of video footage, Singh and Sitsabaiesan have decided to turn what was supposed to be a journal of her experience into a documentary.
‘Ray of Hope: Rathika Sitsabaiesan’s Travels to Sri Lanka’, is expected to be released later this year.
“It’s going to be about 90 minutes and I am trying to get it to premier at a social justice, human rights-style festival,” said Singh who spent a week in Dubai after his six-day visit to Sri Lanka.
This is one of two major film projects he’s working on.
About eight months before the Sri Lanka trip, Singh accompanied award-winning spoken word artist Dwayne Morgan on their first visit to South Africa.
“Much of Dwayne’s work is based on human and Afro-Caribbean experiences and to see what that connection would be for him to go from the Caribbean to South Africa and he as a person of African descent would be impacted is something I couldn’t turn down,” he said.
Arriving in the Greater Toronto in 1993, Singh completed high school at York Mills Collegiate Institute and the University of Windsor in 2000 with a degree in mass communication & media studies.
“After that, I came back to Toronto and did some odd jobs to support my mother who was a single parent raising three children,” he pointed out.
At around the same time, he reconnected with his father – Leon Saul – who is a journalist and playwright.
Saul came to Canada in 1986 and successfully applied for refugee status on the grounds of religious and political persecution. He spent 24 years here before remigrating in 2010 after losing a bid to become a city councillor.
“I had the opportunity to produce one of his plays, ‘For Better, For Worse’, for Rastafest,” said Singh. “That show was sold out.”
His first solo project, ‘Violated’, which was a five-minute auto-biographical documentary about rape and its effects seen through the eyes of the perpetrator, was shot in January 2006 a few months after he bought his first video camera.
It was while working on his father’s theatrical production, ‘Curse of Ham’ that Singh learned about the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists through a cast member who was affiliated with ACTRA.
Singh joined in 2008.
“I knew I wanted to be in film, but I didn’t know how to get into it,” he said. “I asked my mom to sign me up with an agent which she did, but things didn’t go well. I thought my dad could show me the ropes, but he didn’t know how to navigate the mainstream film scene. He operated at a community level with his productions.”
As a principal actor, Singh has appeared in several films, including Faisal Lutchmedial’s ‘Mr. Crab’ which was a finalist in the CBC’s Short film Faceoff in 2013, Sydney Furie-directed ‘Conduct Unbecoming’ and Sasha Moric and Matthew Bennett’s action film, ‘11 Blocks’.
He also directed the talk show pilot, ‘All Out’, and the web series pilot, ‘Unharnessed’ which received an O’Brian Award nomination for Outstanding Broadcast and co-directed the short film, ‘I Rasta’, which was nominated for the Best Short Film Award at the Reggae Film Festival in Jamaica.
Singh’s personal and intimate autobiographical documentary, ‘MOM’, won the Best Short Documentary Award at the 2013 Caribbean Tales International Film Festival.