Shifani Reffai loves Beyoncé. Her cat, who is small and ginger and stares at me suspiciously, is called Meyoncé. And while doing her Masters in English Literature at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, she did a term paper on the singer’s 2016 album, Lemonade — “Just writing that was like, this is why I came here. It was amazing.” It was at JNU, also, that she first started experimenting with filmmaking. “I’ve always been a writer,” she says. “But then I started exploring the idea of telling stories through different mediums. And I started painting, and doing photography. And then I finally landed on film.”
Shifani, a writer, filmmaker and co-founder of White Noise Media, adds that all her creative endeavours have a single common goal: to document Sri Lankan experiences. “That’s the main theme, to explore what it is to be Sri Lankan, especially through my own experiences being a brown, Sri Lankan Muslim woman,” she says. This interest in Sri Lankan identity is central to her work, like the 2017 ‘Women of the World’ series she did in collaboration with filmmaker Lakshya Dhungana and the British Council, which highlights the experiences of Sri Lankan women of various walks of life. It’s all part of her long-term vision “to have a huge library of film and media that people can access to understand what’s really happening in Sri Lanka — that there’s not just one story there, but so many experiences happening. I want the world to be able to see that.”
Shhh, the YouTube talk-show Shifani co-produces with Shanuki De Alwis, who also hosts the show, speaks directly to this vision. The show aims to tackle subjects considered taboo in Sri Lankan society — among the channel’s most popular uploads are discussions around trans rights, child abuse, and the 2019 Easter attacks. The episodes have an energy that is surprisingly comfortable considering the weight of the issues being discussed, partly owing to Shanuki’s easy charisma and confidence, and partly because of the care with which each segment is filmed. “The main thing for me was observing, and being very sensitive to how we could make people comfortable,” explains Shifani, noting that her background in journalism taught her exactly how to get a story out of somebody. She doesn’t use a lot of equipment, making it a point to film in natural light, and she and Shanuki work together “to create this feeling that they’re in someone’s kitchen, just talking, and nobody’s actually listening.” The casual intimacy of the show makes it innately watchable, and it’s not just me who thinks so. The show recently won an award for ‘Best Community Empowerment Program’ at the SLT Zero One Awards in Digital Excellence.
For the future of the show, Shifani wants to push the envelope: “I want it to get more and more experimental, and for us to try things we haven’t tried before, where we’re talking about stuff in a way that people haven’t spoken about them.” That freedom to try new things, to push and evolve creatively, inspired Shifani and her husband to create White Noise Media, a company that offers creative marketing solutions to brands. “The goal is to create an invisible agency for free creative movement, where creatives can network and come together and work on a project and get what they deserve, money-wise,” she says. The priority is for artists to be able to work independently, and without constraints. “We don’t own anybody – it’s that ownership that really brings you down creatively, no?”.
When I ask Shifani how she’s managed to foster a career characterised by going against the grain, and by often being the odd one out, she credits her mother, a woman who “just went out and did whatever felt right”. She tells me a story about a time when she was a child and her family were eating at a hotel with some friends. “Everyone was eating with cutlery, and it was chicken curry. I was like, how am I gonna do this?,” she laughs. “And my mum saw that I was uncomfortable, and she said, ‘Listen, just because everyone else is doing something, doesn’t mean you have to. Just do your own thing.’”
Photography by Amitha Thennakoon. Art & Direction by Ricky De Silva. Videography by StoryWorks.