This film is held by the BFI (ID: 11114).


Everyday life in Ceylon, with special emphasis on the fishing industry.

Title card: 'Negombo Coast'. Archaic map of south east Asia, then a focus on Ceylon on the same map; commentary explains that 'Ceylon lies just off the most southerly point of India and has from ancient times been home to many races and people'. Sequence showing various boats in the harbour at Colombo. Trading houses and street scenes in Colombo: Colombo 'ranks as the sixth port in the world'. Goods being unloaded from a ship in the harbour: 'Ceylon has always had the shipping facilities it needs, the Ceylonese have therefore never felt the need of a mercantile marine of their own'. The shoreline of a fishing village. Man and woman in a fishing village. Fishermen mending and inspecting their nets. A family sat outside their small village house. Shots filmed from the water of fishing boats passing by and people on the shore. A man fishing with a hand net in a lagoon. Men pushing a boat out into the sea. Fishing with large nets that are held between men on the shore and rowers in flat-bottomed boats a little way out to sea. A large haul of a variety of fish. Men on a large canoe 'twenty or thirty miles out at sea', fishing for Bonito, Common and Sword Fish. Shots of men setting bait and catching a fish called the 'seer'. Shots filmed from the shore showing the canoes returning home in the evening; the canoes are run on to the beach in full sail. Men leaving the canoes carrying large fish, which are placed in baskets on the shore. Women carrying fish in baskets on their heads. Shots of a depopulated beach. Ends.



Basil Wright was the first recruit hired by John Grierson, head of the British government’s Empire Marketing Board (EMB) film unit, which was formed in 1928 with the aim of promoting imperial produce within Britain and so help form an imperial economic bloc (Grieveson, 2011). The EMB created films for other agencies, including the Empire Tea Marketing Board and Ceylon Tea Board, who in 1933 jointly sponsored a project to film four one-reel promotional films in Ceylon. Basil Wright was appointed as director, and in late 1933 travelled to Ceylon where, with cameraman John Taylor, he shot over 23,000 feet of film (Wright, 1934, 231). As well as filming the promotional material, Wright also shot with a more ambitious and personal project in mind. He claims that he was ‘sucked into the Buddhist conception and enormously impressed by the excitement and beauty of the country’, and was also ‘extremely indignant about the way the British colonial rule was operating’ (Thomas, 1979, 480).

By the time Wright returned to England to edit his material, the EMB had morphed into the GPO Film Unit. John Grierson remained at its head, and for a year and a half let loose ‘an orgy of experimentation’ within this new organisation (Wright, 1974, 134). Regarding the Ceylon film, he informed Wright that he ‘wouldn’t accept anything except something special’ (Taylor, 1988). The result was the four-reel film Song of Ceylon (1934). Noted for its impressionistic style and innovative soundtrack, Song of Ceylon became one of the GPO Unit’s most acclaimed films, winning the award for best film at the International Film Festival in Brussels in 1935.

The original commission to create four one-reel films was not abandoned, however. The material shot by Wright was also utilised to create the documentaries Negombo Coast, Dance of the Harvest, Monsoon Island, and Villages of Lanka, which were also issued in 1934. While regarding Song of Ceylon as his most successful work, Wright made few comments about these other films. It is unclear how involved he was in editing them, and there are conflicting statements regarding the input of John Taylor. John Grierson stated that it was Taylor who ‘fulfilled the actual contract with the Tea Propaganda Board’ (Grierson, March 1948, 34). However, in a 1988 interview Taylor commonly uses the term ‘they’ to describe the people at the GPO Film Unit who finalised most of this material, although he does recall making cuts of Negombo Coast himself (Taylor, 1988). Rachel Low describes each of the one-reelers as being silent, except for Dance of the Harvest (Low, 2005, 73). However, Negombo Coast was made available in both sound and silent versions (MFB, April 1936, 56).

Negombo is a portal town in the west of Ceylon, situated at the mouth of a large lagoon. The name ‘Negombo’ is a corruption of the local name Miagamuva, coined by the Portuguese during their colonisation of Ceylon in the sixteenth century. The Portuguese also introduced Catholicism, which remains the dominant religion in Negombo and the surrounding area. When Dutch forces captured several of Ceylon’s ports during the sixteenth century, control of some of them was handed to the rulers of the Kandy region of Ceylon. However, following its capture in 1640, the Dutch retained control of Negombo, valuing the local cinnamon lands (de Sliva, 1981, 120). By the time the British took control of the region in 1796, the cinnamon business was in decline, and fishing was becoming established as the main local occupation. Eventually Negombo was established as Ceylon’s principal fishing port (‘Negombo City Overview’). Among the fishermen featured in this film are those of Duwa Island, a small community near Negombo, which is connected by a causeway to the mainland (‘Duwa Island’).



It is interesting to note the differences between Song and Ceylon and Negombo Coast, both in terms of their structure and in relation to their use of the same film materials. Song of Ceylon is structured in four parts. The first two parts cover Buddhist ceremonies and rural life, but then the third part jars with these portraits by introducing ‘The Voice of Commerce’, the technological and commercial changes wrought by the British colonisers. The film provides some resolution, however: the fourth part indicates that, despite this intrusion, the traditional life continues. Here, Song of Ceylon returns to Buddhist ceremonies and the film concludes as it began, featuring the same opening shots of the island’s plant life. In contrast, Negombo Coast is comprised of only two sections. Its opening features images of large trading ships, harbour activity, and the international trade in Ceylon’s capital, Colombo; while the bulk of the film outlines the activities of the fishermen along the Negombo coastline.

Reflecting its commercial sponsorship, one of the differences between Negombo Coast and Song of Ceylon is that the former is almost entirely concerned with labour. Several of its images of fishermen can also be seen in the second section of Song of Ceylon. However, whereas the longer film situates the men’s work within their social and cultural activities, Negombo Coast restricts itself to outlining their trade alone. For example, both films feature a multi-shot portrait of a net-caster from Duwa, described by Rachael Low as a ‘stunning sequence’ (Low, 2005, 74). In Negombo Coast each aspect of his activity is carefully outlined in the commentary, but in Song of Ceylon these images are instead accompanied by local dialect, and the film supplements a depiction of the relationship between this man and his son. It should be added that, for different reasons, neither film mentions the Catholic religion of fishermen: in Negombo Coast this is possibly because of its preoccupation with trade; in Song of Ceylon the reason might be the film’s preoccupation with the Buddhist religion of the island.

Song of Ceylon posits international trade and communications as representing a modern intrusion: ‘new clearings, new roads, new buildings, new communications, new developments of natural resources’. In Song of Ceylon the images of trading ships come in the third section, following on from the portrait of village life. In the preceding section we learn that the local men regard it ‘a great shame’ to work for hire. In this third section, however, the footage of commercial vessels is interwoven with images of plantation workers. The root of this alien commerce is indicated by the overdubbed sounds of British voices on the soundtrack, and its discordant nature is highlighted by the use of dissonant music. In contrast, Negombo Coast represents the foreign presence in Ceylon as one of the island’s traditions. The film opens with a picture of an ancient map of Ceylon and its commentary then outlines the island’s various colonisers and the fact that ‘from the 7th century B.C. Ceylon has traded with the world’. Here the images of large trading shipsprecede the documentation of the island’s fishermen.

It is not hard to see why the commercial sponsors of Song of Ceylon would have objected to its portrayal of international commerce. However, Negombo Coast also has the effect of casting doubt on the benefits of foreign trade. Its opening section mentions tea among a roll call of products that are exported from the island. The film aims to depict Ceylon’s foreign trade in the most positive light, arguing that overseas traders have provided Ceylon with ‘the shipping facilities it needs’. Consequently, the Ceylonese have ‘never felt the need of a mercantile marine of their own’. However, the next line of the film’s commentary complicates this benign portrayal of foreign commerce: ‘they [the Ceylonese] make good sailors, however, and fishing is the chief means of livelihood of the people living in the numerous little villages along the coast’. This line of commentary is used as a bridge between the two sections of the film.  Perhaps unwittingly, it also sets up a contrast between the film’s two sections. The viewer can clearly witness the difference between the grand buildings of Colombo that service the international trade, and the basic rustic homes of the fishermen. Moreover, unlike Song of Ceylon, this is not a circular film; there is no resolution and nor does their appear to be any relationship between the world trade that takes place at Colombo, and the localised fishing trade of Colombo.

Richard Osborne (November 2009)


Works Cited

Anthony, Scott, ‘Empire Marketing Board Film Unit (1926-33),

de Silva, K. M., A History of Sri Lanka (London: C. Hurst & Co, 1981).

‘Duwa Island’,

Grierson, John, ‘Close-Up: Basil Wright’, Documentary News Letter, 7/63 (March 1948), 34-35.

Grieveson, Lee, ‘The cinema and the (common)wealth of nations’, in Film and Empire (London: BFI, 2011), edited by Lee Grieveson and Colin MacCabe.

Low, Rachael, The History of British Film, vol. 5(London: Routledge, 2005).

‘Negombo City Overview’,

Taylor, John, ‘BECTU Interview Part 5’ (1988),

Thomas, Sari, ‘Basil Wright on Art, Anthropology and the Documentary’, Quarterly Review of Film Studies, 4/4 (Autumn 1979), 465-481.

Wright, Basil, ‘Filming in Ceylon’, Cinema Quarterly, 2/4 (Summer 1934), 231-32.

Wright, Basil, The Long View (London: Secker & Warburg, 1974).




Technical Data

Running Time:
9 minutes
Film Gauge (Format):
35mm Film

Production Credits

Production Countries:
Great Britain
Commissioning Company
Empire Tea Marketing Expansion Board
Production Company
GPO Film Unit