Groundviews

Happy Sri Lanka

Image from Happy Colombo “Sri Lanka” video

Happy, by Pharrell Williams bills itself as the world’s first 24 hour music video. The song is extremely catchy and aired at least once a day, every day at the time of writing this on Sri Lankan radio. On YouTube, nearly 300 million have seen the original music video. Over 10 million have viewed 24hoursofhappy.com, a dedicated website for Pharrell’s music video, which aside from the music, features a compelling concept and design.

But what merits mention of a music video on Groundviews?

Aus News Lanka, a website of indeterminable origins and anchored to news about Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans in Australia, ran in late May a story titled Happy Sri Lanka!!!, which noted,

Sri Lankans are now enjoying peace, stability and economic progress. We can see that from the faces of locals and the tourists. Visit Sri Lanka!!!

The phenomenon Aus News Lanka flags is called geo-remixing, a term used by civic media guru Ethan Zuckerman who penned a compelling article around this phenomenon in general, and Pharrell’s ‘Happy’ specifically, in The Atlantic recently.

It’s not the first time geo-remixed videos have gone viral in Sri Lanka. The last, around a year ago, was around a short clip from the song ‘Harlem Shake’ by American DJ Baauer. In fact, it’s doubtful whether the majority of the tens of thousands who created Harlem Shake videos around the world even knew about or listened to the full version of Baauer’s song. Sri Lankans produced their share of Harlem Shake videos, the most popular of which got over 115,000 views. Embedded below is one produced by a close friend, together with his friends, at Galle Face green in Colombo.

Though not as wildly popular and largely without video, the Tamil song Why This Kolaveri Di a year before ‘Harlem Shake’ was also geo-mixed in Sri Lanka, uploaded to YouTube and indeed, at the time, requested and played frequently in leading clubs and discos in Colombo, as well as at wedding receptions.

In his article in The Atlantic, Zuckerman avers that,

“Perhaps a video that asserts that you and your friends are part of the wider world is political only if your nation has consciously withdrawn from that world. Perhaps it’s political any time your city, your country, and your culture are misunderstood or ignored by the rest of the world.”

Zuckerman’s thesis is anchored to the amazing We Are Happy From map, featuring hundreds of ‘Happy’ geo-remixes from all six continents. However, what Zuckerman fails to adequately capture is that geo-remixes of ‘Happy’ and ‘Harlem Shake’ in particular are even more interesting for what and who they don’t depict, and official responses to the process of producing the videos, than just the fun and frolic they frame.

For example, Aus News Lanka follows Zuckerman’s logic in framing the production of Sri Lanka’s ‘Happy’ videos as evidence everyone in the country is, well, happy. It’s worth looking at some of the most viewed Sri Lankan ‘Happy’ videos in this regard, in the order I encountered them on social media.

And finally,

There are really close friends in these videos, friends of friends, well-known and much loved media personalities, web stars like Jehan R and an assortment of other individuals, all having a bloody good time and ending up with videos that, if you like the original song, are great fun to watch. They are, undoubtedly, happy, upbeat videos. Aus News Lanka, however, determines from these videos alone that Sri Lankans are happy, “enjoying peace, stability and economic progress”. Looking at those featured in these videos, the locations where they were shot and who produced them, it is unclear how such an assertion can be made about all Sri Lankans. The videos are – by design or unwittingly – deeply political because they project a specific, carefully tailored image of post-war Sri Lanka. There are no ‘Happy’ geo-remixes from the North and East, where families, even today, cannot mourn their dead. There are no ‘Happy’ people from the drought affected districts, a catastrophe of passing interest at best for the majority outside the affected areas. Free Trade Zone workers and Sri Lanka’s tea-pluckers aren’t in any of the ‘Happy’ videos, perhaps because they are too busy working long shifts for meager pay. Tellingly, the places these ‘Happy’ videos are shot at are geographically a stone’s throw away from, but don’t focus on or feature locations like Slave Island or Java Lane in Colombo – areas where tens of thousands have been forcibly evicted from their homes. Doubt many of them are happy today.

Is this to say those featured in these videos, and many more besides, aren’t really happy? No. Happiness is clearly present and growing apace within specific social, political, economic strata and geographic loci. At the risk of caricature, those uncritical of governance, comfortable with growing inequity, ignorant or very dismissive of our democratic deficit, discovering vast profits in new markets, impatient with looking at the past and accepting of government as it is, not as how it should be, are the happiest in Sri Lanka today. Clearly, happiness in post-war Sri Lanka is unequally shared, and no greater insight into this can be found than looking at the silences, gaps and absences in these ‘Happy’ videos.

The stories around some of these productions, retold by friends who created or acted in them, are equally revealing. Take for example the ‘Harlem Shake’ video above, shot at Galle Face promenade in early 2013 – years after the end of the war, in an open, public space, in broad daylight. The producers spoke of policemen who came to inquire what they were doing, why and to stop them from filming. Admittedly, though ‘Harlem Shake’ in full-flow looks as if all those taking part require immediate and prolonged admission in Angoda, it is telling that what is so obviously a harmless activity, breaking no law, in an open, public space with no restrictions around movement, faces immediate official censure and clampdown.

A similar story was retold by someone who took part in one of the ‘Happy’ videos. After one-take – in what was again an open, public space in front of a large commercial and office space in Colombo, in broad daylight and on a weekend – security had come around and asked them to stop filming, claiming the area was in a high security zone. This wasn’t even a crowd – it was a single person dancing away while someone else filmed. It escaped the person who told me, the security guard and clearly even the production team that high security zones aren’t legal in Sri Lanka after the lapse of Emergency Regulations in 2011. Again, the immediate response to what is clearly a ‘happy’ activity – in no discernible way a threat to anyone and five years after the end of war – is a national security mindset that barks out what cannot be done in public, and a majority who supinely accept what officials tell them. It is a mindset and indeed, systemic violence, at complete odds with the thrust of Pharrell’s original ‘Happy’ song and the geo-remixes based on it.

And yet, geo-remixes on the lines of ‘Why This Kolaveri Di’, ‘Harlem Shake’ and ‘Happy’ are the result of content production, distribution and consumption frameworks underpinned by a free, open web and the democratisation of multimedia production. Seen this way, these productions are subversive beyond what they consciously frame and seek to project – the more who go on to produce and see them, the more difficult it is for web censorship to take root, even when the same platforms are used to bear witness to human rights violations or by whistle-blowers to distribute content around, for example, corruption, war crimes or mass atrocities. Aus News Lanka is wrong when it asserts on the basis of a few YouTube videos that all Sri Lankans are happy, yet unwittingly also flag a phenomenon that can make the Rajapaksa regime – who stop at nothing to contain, control and censor inconvenient information – deeply unhappy. For it is the same platform that gives us ‘Happy’ that also gives us a remake of ‘Gangam Style’ that so deliciously mocks our President and leading politicians.

It is one thing for civil society to campaign against web censorship and the intrusion of a security mindset into civil affairs. It is another for young producers, actors and citizens, in the pursuit of happiness, to encounter first hand a war mentality that endures, and indeed, grows far beyond barracks. The first usually only appeals to the converted. The second is a segment of the population which will have a very different response to wider, deeper censorship, which is why geo-remixing needs to get more political, widespread and sustained.

Clap along if you feel like that’s what you wanna do!