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Sri Lanka's Genocidal War - '95 to '01
'Trial by Fire' - film examines a Tamil family's response to arrest and detention
National Geographic Explorer Programme on Sri Lanka, broadcast on TBS on 2 December 1996 - The film examines a Tamil family’s response to the government’s practices of arrest and imprisonment under emergency law in the eastern District of Batticaloa. The story unfolds through the voice of a young Tamil mother whose husband has “disappeared” and whose brother has been transferred from a local detention center to Kalutara prison in the south.
Comments by Patricia Lawrence, Anthropological Consultant for the Film, Anthropolgy Department, Colorado University:
"In connection with this program I might mention that I have received “hate mail” from Sinhalese viewers, telephone calls from the State Dept, and a wheel chair for a Tamil father who had both hips broken during interrogation — he was held for three years in a number of prisons and as his fractured hips were never treated he suffers a permanently frozen pelvic girdle. There should be a fund for Tamil people who suffer permanent physical injuries as a result of torture.
I would like to congratulate National Geographic for the recent airing of “Trial by Fire,” a documentary which presents a profile of one young Tamil mother's struggle in eastern Sri Lanka, a region cordoned-off from the rest of the island by government military forces since 1990. Her husband is listed among the tens of thousands of Tamil people who have “disappeared” in this peripheralized Tamil-speaking region. Her brother was arrested, interrogated and imprisoned without charge under the government’s emergency regulations. She is urgently in need of employment.
The circumstances of her life are not atypical in eastern Sri Lanka, where Tamil families have suffered 14 years of civil war.
National Geographic’s documentary has provoked official protest from the Sri Lankan embassy and a flood of messages from Sri Lankan Tamil people living in the United States and Canada who expressed gratitude for media acknowledgment of the human impact of the protracted war — even though, as National Geographic has stated, “much of the political content was virtually eliminated.”
The transmission of “Trial by Fire” coincides with the US State Department’s approval of the sale of lethal weaponry to the government of Sri Lanka — even in a historical moment when human rights conditions are deteriorating on the island. The idea of endeavoring to send a film crew into eastern Sri Lanka arose at the 1995 American Anthropological Association meetings in Washington D.C., where a BBC -Granada film director listened to my presentation of ethnographic material about survivors of torture and families of the “disappeared” in Batticaloa District.
When I agreed to work as anthropological consultant for the film project, I was frank about ethical-political problems and my doubts that we could overcome government censorship on life inside the Tamil-speaking areas. Yet we succeeded in carrying out the film project in Batticaloa District, under the shadow of daily government intelligence and counter-subversive unit scrutiny, and difficulties of movement under the de facto military regime in the eastern coastal plain.
The greatest obstacle, however, was finding people who could speak on camera in a peripheralized population so vulnerable to human rights atrocities. The segments of film aired in “Trial by Fire” depended largely upon the collaborative effort of five women.
We encouraged one another and worked together in the face of uncertainty about the consequences of our acts. Brian Moser of the “Disappearing Worlds” series directed the film crew. The larger film project produced more than 30 times the footage transmitted in the National Geographic show. This footage serves as material for several documentary films.
An hour-long BBC documentary to be aired early next year in the UK incorporates local Tamil people’s narratives on the recent history of retaliation killings and mass extrajudicial executions, indiscriminate shelling, and intense social suffering of Tamil people... Control over editing, scripts and voice-over was not granted to me as anthropological consultant, following the usual policy.
Some important film segments pertinent to this story were deleted in the editing process. For example, narratives on the prisoner’s experience of torture were cut as were discussions between the prisoner’s sister, wife and the human rights lawyer which reveal how abduction, illtreatment, forced confession, incommunicado detention and long-term detention without charge is facilitated by emergency law and the Prevention of Terrorism act in Sri Lanka.
As an ethnographer, I wished to hear the original words of the speakers — for the voices of ordinary Tamil people are hardest to hear outside the war zone. The use of voice-over instead of subtitles contributes to distortion and misrepresentation. I regretted the editors’ selection of titillating film segments of “exoticized” local religious practices.
It is interesting, however, that the written responses of Sri Lankan Tamil viewers lack criticism of the exoticization of Tamil “otherness” portrayed in scenes of the resurgence of local Amman temple ritual. The overwhelming concern expressed by Tamil viewers was that in spite of rigid censorship a message about the desperate plight of Tamil people who endure and bear violent repression succeeded in reaching an international audience.
Emergency powers have been used by successive governments in Sri Lanka to close newspapers, to prevent camera equipment and journalists from entering areas of active conflict, enable government security forces to destroy evidence of possible extrajudicial executions, and to prohibit distribution of academic writing and information about human rights violations. For more than 26 of the past 42 years Sri Lanka has been ruled under a declared state of emergency.
From the perspective of many local families with whom I have lived in the eastern war zone between 1991 and 1996, this is a historical moment when there is no room for dissent. These families live in an uncertain world where the rule is to “keep quiet” (maunamaka irukkavum; amaityaka irukkavum) about broken connections in the closest circle of human relationships.
The question I am left with is how can we, as South Asian scholars, follow in the footsteps of this film project and contribute more effective responses to political silencing of severe human rights crises? "