Temporal Disruption


By Shanuka Kadupitiyage

Temporal, the new science fiction short movie created by the team at High School Junkies became a trending topic on the internet, especially among the youth of Sri Lanka following its release. Seeing the 35 minute movie myself, it’s clear that the movie is a positive sign for Sri Lankan cinema. 

The movie follows the story of a physicist who, “Challenges the limits of time travel to save the woman he loves, but soon discovers its inherent dangers are far greater than he expects.” Although not perfect, Temporal is a bold new step in taking Sri Lankan cinema in a new direction. 

Neither the movie, nor High School Junkies would exist if it weren’t for Akash Sunethkumara, the Director of Temporal and Founder of High School Junkies. Ceylon Today reached out to Akash to learn more about his journey as a filmmaker, and the story behind the development of Temporal from concept, to the theatre. 

From beginning to end 

Movies were a part of Akash’s life growing up. Although his love for film began through 80s action flicks, it soon diversified into the vast trove of movies the world has to offer thanks to the kind, but firm suggestion of his mother to try watching other movies. “The whole larger-than-life aspect of films is what appealed to me. It was a form of escapism,” he shared.

This love for movies converted into a passion for getting into filmmaking during the latter end of his school years. “I was fortunate enough to have parents who were supportive in what I wanted to do.”

Although he wanted to pursue his higher education in film, none of the options available in the country were what Akash was looking for in terms of standard. Resorting to completing a degree in interactive media, he found a Master’s programme in film to do online. 

The programme was a hybrid system that was held online, “…and they weren’t necessarily teaching you practical experience, so I had to learn everything practical on my own. Therefore I reached out to some friends who also happen to be in the creative side of things. I told them that there was a short film I really wanted to do for my master’s programme and asked if they wanted to help.”

Akash’s friends happened to be Kasun Rathnasiri, Stefania Perera and Shenic Tissera, who later became the team behind High School Junkies and all of their productions. 

“We all met during high school, and that’s the spark behind the name,” he revealed. “We all are from high school and junkies because we would not stop at anything once we began something.”

Making movies and more

Akash and the team have since been involved in a number of short-movie productions some which have even made their way to being screened at international film festivals as well. “Our first one was never released publicly. The second one ended up becoming the thesis for my masters and the one which introduced High School Junkies to the audience. We’ve been doing this for seven years since and haven’t looked back since.”

Aside from making movies, Akash is also a part-time lecturer in filmmaking. This desire to pass on the knowledge and experience he has didn’t stop there. When the pandemic brought the entire world to a standstill, Akash founded Junkyard Theory, a series of instructional and educational webinars for those who want to find a career in the film industry. 

“Like everyone was, I too was stuck indoors. I had a few connections from LA when I visited there and I reached out to them, asking if they wanted to be part of a podcast/webinar type of programme. They were all very supportive and accommodating. One thing led to another and soon we had a bunch of guests, and we got to meet a lot of new people.

“It got pretty big. I think this is the first time a podcast was made with actual Hollywood people in this country, and we decided to launch our own little courses online.”

Akash is surprised by how well received Junkyard Theory has become. “It goes to show that Sri Lanka does have people who want to make films. It’s a very niche subject, but people are there.”

Building up to Temporal

Akash shared that with each short movie that the team at High School Junkies produced, the team gave emphasis to a specific aspect of filmmaking. “That way, we were able to hone our filmmaking skills with each video. We always wanted to make a feature length film, so this was how we worked past as many failures as early as possible.”

All this culminated with the movie Temporal which might be the right of passage for High School Junkies to move onto bigger and more ambitious projects. 

The movie, produced by Harindu Gunawardena, was initially pitched by him and Kasun Rathnasiri. Akash recalled the movie pitch being incomplete, but after some reworking with the help of Ruwanga and Sachithra, the two were able to come up with a script and plot that Akash saw potential in. “I’d always wanted to try a time-travel scenario,” Akash added with a smile.

“We wanted to make the movie easy for our audiences to relate to, which is why we did the movie with a little bit of ‘singlish’, which is how a lot of people speak these days. It is also why we embedded the theme of appamado amatha padang into the narrative. 

Akash shared that the project was one of their most ambitious ones yet, and was all completed in a short production schedule using some of the highest grade filmmaking equipment, sourced thanks to Gunawardena’s assistance. 

“Pre-production took four months and it took three days to film everything. It was the most gruelling shoot we’d done. We should have stretched that to six days, but timing and budget limited our ability to do so. We shot for I think 17 hours the first two days, and it was crazy. Post-production took around four months, which is a lot faster than usual.”

The end result

“I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished, but I know we can do more.” Akash shared. “The film is far from perfect. When I watch it myself, I see mistakes in a lot of frames and parts of the movie.” 

As for the reaction from audiences, Akash revealed that, “The reaction was somewhat polarised, which I expected. Some people understood it while others didn’t see much in it. Not all of the audience necessarily connected with it admittedly. But I think that’s mainly because they didn’t grow up with time travel movies as much as we did.

“Nevertheless, the reaction from the younger generation was beyond anything I expected. I did not expect people to like it as much as they did.”

For Akash and the team, Temporal was more of an experiment than a movie alone. “We wanted to explore how a Western time travel concept would work in a Sri Lankan concept. How could you localise a story like that to connect with the Sri Lankan audience. On those fronts, it worked.

“We’ve had time travel stories before, such as Akala Sandya, but they use time travel as a more fantasy-type element, whilst Temporal’s time travel is based on science fiction, a concept that hasn’t been done a lot in Sri Lankan cinema before.”

Mr. Bernard

“That scene with the amazing Mr. Lakshman Mendis portraying Bernard is something we’ve had in our heads for the last three years. We showed him the film and asked if he would be interested to cameo in it, and we are so excited that he did. 

“The character Bernard had to be this imposing figure that has this mysterious, authoritative figure, and in my eyes, the only one who could portray that in Sri Lankan cinema was him. The moment he sat down in the chair and delivered his line, we knew that ‘That’s Bernard.’”

A more aware audience 

Akash believes the exposure to movies from different countries in the world has helped local audiences develop a more sophisticated palate in terms of the media they consume. “They know what’s out there. You can’t fool them anymore. Even if you copy, there’s still a certain finish and quality that they look for.” He agrees that the formula used once upon a time in every Sri Lankan movie, is “not going to work anymore.”

Cinema that’s Sri Lankan

Ceylon Today inquired about Akash’s opinion on how Sri Lanka may strengthen its cinema industry.

“We have the talent and we have the equipment,” he replied. “What we need is to work together. The world is moving at a rapid pace, and the same can be said for movies. The quality in movies is increasing from cinematography to storytelling, everything.”

Akash noted that in order for Sri Lankan cinema to remain relevant and engaging for both local and international audiences, it also needs to produce new, creative and unique ideas as well as concepts in the stories they tell through film.

“We need to evolve to remain relevant. It’s not just about the technology being used, it’s about how we can contribute to the world with the stories we can tell as Sri Lankans. There are stories and ideas that we are best suited to tell. We need to find that Sri Lankan essence we all have and share it with the world.”

In order to do so, Akash sees the need for Sri Lankan filmmakers to band together to create a united front, to identify that the true competition isn’t among each other, but with the rest of the world. 

“We also need to provide youngsters with the opportunity to do things their way. I think that this is something that the local cinema industry needs to do better on.”

What’s next?

As for Akash and the team at High School Junkies, plans are already underway on what the team wants to do next to top their achievement with Temporal. 

“Each short film has been a learning experience for us, and I think we are now ready to do a feature film,” he shared. 

Although Akash was not at liberty to share his plans, he did hint that audiences will see a lot more from Bernard in the future. But for now, the team is enjoying the success of the hard work that went into their latest creation, and biding the time until the right moment comes to begin production once more. 

 Speaking with Akash, it is clear that he and the team at High School Junkies truly enjoy the art of filmmaking and are passionate in contributing to local cinema through their efforts. They’ve journeyed a long way the past seven years, but their efforts and accomplishments to come will undoubtedly leave behind a legacy for the future of Sri Lankan cinema.

 “Films have a longer shelf life than any of us. For me, filmmaking has been about what I leave behind to the world. Movies have the ability to inspire people. When you are inspired, change happens. And although filmmaking might not be a sustainable mode of income right now, it can be in the future. 

“From what we’ve seen with Temporal, it’s clear that the Sri Lankan audience wants to support local cinema. In fact, they’re actually waiting for good cinema to be created.”