WOMEN IN CONFLICT – An interview with American filmmaker based in Sri Lanka, Lisa Kois

[Editors note: This interview was conducted in April 2006]

 

Lisa Kois is a brave filmmaker, working right at the heart of today’s dangerous and on going civil conflict in Sri Lanka. Her movie and television series on Sri Lanka’s war have won her numerous international awards; she talks to Hugh Bohane, about her experiences making her first movie, “The art of Forgetting” and the television series, “Crossing Fires”, which features British-Sri Lankan musician, M.I.A.

 

Tell us a bit about your background?

I am originally from the United States, yet do not identify with today’s America, its policies, or its practices. At the same time, it’s where I am from, it’s what I grew up with, there is a part of it – I like to think the good part, the part that celebrates freedom and justice and rights and diversity – that I carry with me always… that is me. The longer I have lived outside of the US, the more alien it has become, particularly in the last seven or so years of Bush and the Neo-Cons. It’s increasingly difficult to relate to it.

I have lived in Sri Lanka for the last 12 years. I’m a lawyer by training, a writer and now a filmmaker. But I’m not really comfortable with any of those titles. The work I do has always revolved around issues of justice and rights. So that means combating violence, raising awareness about violence, working with survivors of domestic violence and rape. It is also legal advocacy around rights abuses, documentation, writing, and now documentary filmmaking.

After working in various capacities within the UN and Sri Lankan NGOs, I became frustrated with what I saw as the limitation of traditional forms of human rights documentation and advocacy, with its heavy reliance on the law and legal remedies. I felt like we would write report upon report, but nobody was reading them. In search of a larger audience, I started experimenting with other forms, art forms and documentary film making.

 

How did you come to choose this line of work and Sri Lanka, as a country to work in?

There are issues… issues of justice, of rights, of power and the abuse of power; of violence… these are the issues that drive me.

I was a welfare child a product of the system, a system that is overwhelming and increasingly hostile and violent toward the very people it is supposed to serve. Then there was violence, episodes of violence in my life, in my friend’s lives. It’s virtually inevitable as a young girl, then young woman, you will experience some form of violence directed at you merely because you are a girl or a woman, so that’s that. Then the work you do drives you further, working with survivors of violence, or working with women in conflict situations, you have the opportunity to meet, interact and work with the most amazing people.

As for Sri Lanka, after first coming to Sri Lanka for a few months in 1995 to work with the United Nations Special Rapporteur on violence against women, Sri Lankan lawyer and academic Radhika Coomaraswamy, I had returned in 1996 to continue that work.

Although employed by the UN, I was lucky to find myself based at a local research and policy institute, the International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES), in a community of intellectuals, activists and political leaders who encouraged my involvement and activism in human rights and peace movements in Sri Lanka.

At the center of this tightly woven community was a man named Neelan Tiruchelvam – an activist-intellectual, constitutional expert and moderate Tamil politician working to craft a political solution to the war, who was also the energy, passion and spirit behind ICES and a mentor to the many young scholars and researchers, like me, who worked there.

I was actually starting to think about leaving Sri Lanka in 1999… and then reality crashed the gate and left Neelan’s body on the road and Sri Lanka, the conflict, peace, it all became very personal. Political violence has a way of breaking you open and laying you bare.

Throughout my time in Sri Lanka I have moved in and out of conflict areas. In some cases my outsider status – the fact that I am visibly foreign – made it easier for me to do that, to move, to go into areas that were very insecure and document rights abuses. My skin privilege provided me access and a certain level of security in areas and situations in which my Tamil colleagues couldn’t venture.

 

Tell us a little bit about the film you made?

It’s called “The art of Forgetting”.

It is framed in terms of those moments I was talking about earlier… the moments when political violence enters the frame and alters your world.

The film explores issues of political violence and memory in Sri Lanka through the stories of ordinary people whose lives have been forever altered by the violence. It attempts to foreground the stories that don’t get told. The stories that were being excluded from the peace process as it began to unfold in 2002 and 2003, to highlight the commonality of suffering for those who experience political violence and somehow to break through the silence and statistical anonymity that characterizes the dominant discourses of war by foregrounding the personal stories of the people whose lives have been forever altered by war and political violence.

Filming was done over the course of the two years – 2002 to 2004 – after the signing of the (now collapsed) ceasefire agreement. The project had two components. One was documentation of oral histories and places that had been inaccessible because of the war – to document them before they were all reconstructed and memory was erased. The second component was the film itself.

The project was meant to engage in what Alex Boraine, former Deputy Chair of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission and Director of the International Centre on Transitional Justice, calls the “intentional act of remembering”. To look back and remember the past in order to move beyond it, so this is a non-vindictive memory, I’m talking about. It is an honest memory, a memory that need not be afraid of the light. A memory that must be exposed fully so that healing can begin.

Peace cannot merely be a political arrangement between two warring parties. That’s part of it, of course, but what happened in Sri Lanka, and what is still happening, is that the official discourse of peace, the failed talks, the “peace process,” leaves the people behind. I really wanted to challenge that. To make room for the voices of the people and the stories that isn’t heard.

The film uses the metaphor of ‘travel’, from the majority Tamil North of the country to the majority Sinhala South- through government and rebel territory – to examine the ways in which those affected by violence and conflict have no choice but to remember and to challenge those who advocate amnesia. It was made with the hope that it could be used as a tool to promote dialogue on issues of political violence, war, justice, and accountability, on the question of how a country goes about balancing the past – and the suffering and rights violations of the past – and the future.

It has been really well received. More so than I expected, there is something that seems to touch people or something with which people are connecting with on various levels. Watching the film seems to be a very personal experience. It becomes a vehicle of expression for the pain and memory that people watching the film carry.

Although the film wasn’t specifically about women, most of the people in the film are women, you find that women are often the ones who are left behind, they are the widows, the mothers, the sisters, the daughters … they are the story tellers… the past…the bearers of history.

 

Tell us about your last television series “Crossing Fires”, who are some of the featured artists and how did it come about?

I worked as a Consultant on the series and producing a couple of the Programs for Young Asia Television. It is an Independent television production house. It produces socially relevant programming, for Sri Lanka and more broadly, Asia. They are conceived of a television documentary series that explores issues of women and armed conflict. Some of the issues that are being covered include women and combat, disappearances, displacement, war-related disabilities, migration, war widows, etc. One program in the series looks at issues of women, conflict and music, specifically how young women from Sri Lanka are using music to explore political questions and/or take a political stand on peace.

Now there are these young people in Sri Lanka – young Sri Lankan’s whose lives have been lived always under the shadow of war. Who are exploring different ways of making political interventions, locally and internationally, through different art forms?

A really powerful one is music… so this program looks at music. From M.I.A – Maya Arulapragasam – who really stirred things up internationally ever since her first commercially released CD, Arula, in 2005.

Mathangi \

Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam. Photo credit Paul Natkin/WireImage.com

 

Although her music is only known by the young kind of independent hipsters in Sri Lanka, I must say I was really taken with it when I was first introduced to it by a friend in India. It’s very provocative, very political and has a great danceable beat. It’s what good music should be. And it gets people thinking.

Everybody wants to pin her down as pro this or pro that. I don’t think she’s that easy. I think she plays with images, experiences, identities and irony. She gets people talking and debating. I think that’s brilliant.

The program put M.I.A next to these young Sri Lankan women who are experimenting in different ways with a more political kind of music, who recognize the power music has to impact people and want to use their music to promote peace.

This is my favorite episode of the program. It’s a bit lighter, in some ways, but equally relevant. There is sometimes a tendency to get trapped in a victim-mentality when it comes to issues like women and conflict, to focus overwhelmingly on the ways in which women are victimized. But that’s just one piece of the story.

Think of M.I.A.? Where would she be, who would she be, and what would she be doing if she had not been forced to leave Sri Lanka as a child? So there is this thing about conflict for women, in some cases it helps reconfigure space and make room for women to change their roles or challenge the dominant construct of what women should be doing. These young musicians are all about that.

 

What do you want for Sri Lanka?

Peace. Real, meaningful peace, which means that there, needs to be accountability too.

 

[Editors note: Lisa’s work has been featured on Groundviews in the past. Lisa’s introduction to her film The Art of Forgetting can be found here. A review of the film can be found here. Both submissions were first published on this site.]

  • http://sahasamvada-forum.blogspot.com sahasamvada

    The politics or lack of clarity of the politics behind M.I.A is the main reason that has subjected her to controversy and doubt (with sad characters like DeLon coming forward most probably to ride on M.I.A’s popularity). It is not about tagging her pro this or pro that because anyone who wishes to stand out from the rest are undoubtedly bait for the scandal mongers. M.I.A has stayed silent about what she really wants to say to her fans until quite recently and even in that she has maintained her vagueness. We are all very keen about accountability and its paramount when it comes to the conflict. So shouldn’t Maya also understand that she is accountable to her fans and most of all the conflict in Sri Lanka, that most of her visuals and some songs are based on. If only the unease that this ambiguity creates is eliminated her music would definitely have more power and meaning while stopping pro-LTTE supporters in claiming her as their new age-microphone wielding-soldier!

  • http://www.jivajiva.com jiva parthipan

    Art, music etc doesnt preach absolute morality and positions and shouldnt be expected to do so. I assume Sahasamvada want a Goerge Bush style partisan loyalty- Either you are with us or you are not.
    Ambiguity is a lot more potent and welcome. Keep up the silence MIA.- thats tells a lot more.

  • http://sahasamvada-forum.blogspot.com sahasamvada

    Bush!!! oh please….the biggest problem in terms of the SL conflict is that every thing is absolutely ambiguous and the biggest issue with it is the lack of accountability. Also, Art should not be used at the expense of life and as a tool to promote violence. Music is a potent media which influences much of the mindsets of todays youth and we need forms of art that will bring out a progressive change in these mindsets, not the contrary.

  • http://- Sam Thambipillai

    Lisa Kois should venture to make a film on “Genocide of Tamils in Sri Lanka”. Such a film could bring not only peace but also reconciliation. I give some facts below for her consideration.

    The UN convention on genocide of 1948, described genocide as a crime against humanity. Unforrtunately, such a horrible crime rarely received deserving timely action from the UN, let alone disappearances, whenever it occured in different parts of the world.

    In Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur, rather than prevention of genocide and disappearances, the punishment of the offenders was done by the UN. That too, after the crime had taken its full course to destroy a part of humanity.

    Sri Lanka(SL) is a failed state in conflict resolution and preserving human rights. We have no pedigree to resolve conflicts and presrve Human Rights. Observing that there were very high levels of gross Human Rights violations with impunity, prevailing in the North East(NE), the UN Human Rights Council was willing to help the citizens of SL with Human Rights Monitors. But the Government of Sri Lanka(GOSL) was defiant to the suggestion.

    The defiance of Mahinda Rajapakse was similar to the defiance of Omar Al Bashir, the president of Sudan, who is now issued with an arrest warrant by the International Criminal Court.

    Culprits, for fear of being caught and brought to justice often “take to their heels”. This is exactly what happened in Sudan and is happening in SL.

    The former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic “ran away” from arrest for more than 10 years but is facing charges in the Hague now, for genocide in Bosnia. Mahinda and his ilk may like to “run” for 20 years if they can.

    The “running away” game from the UN Human Rights Monitors is not helping the citizens of SL at all. The siege of Kilinochchi now is similar to the siege of Sarajevo about 10 years ago. A humanitarian crisis is unfolding in Kilinochchi and Vavuniya. This has been reported to the UN Secretary General by Fr James Pathinathan, the President of the Vanni Branch of the Justice and Peace Commission.

    The UN should prevent, at all cost, any repetition of the mistakes made in Rwanda, Bosnia or Sudan. Three important steps by the UN appear to be very urgent now.

    Firstly, the UN should send a responsible person like the Chief of the Human Rightss Council, to undertake a tour of the internally displaced persons’ camps and hear directly from them, the incidents of violations of International humanitarian law and Human Rights law that have occured in Kilinochchi and Vavuniya.

    Secondly, From his observations, the special representative of the UN should report to the UN Security Council his findings, so that, it could give an ultimatum to the GOSL to stem the civilian sufferings caused at Kilinochchi and Vavuniya.

    Thirdly, a UN investigation should be launched into all violations of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights Law that have occured in the NE during the past years.

    The foolish allow the ugliness of history to repeat itself but the wise prevent its recurrence. Humanity should venture to create pleasant history than allowing history to repeat its ugliness.

  • http://www.blacklightarrow.wordpress.com David Blacker

    “The former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic “ran away” from arrest for more than 10 years but is facing charges in the Hague now”

    Slobo is dead. He died some two years ago. Hadn’t you heard? I think you’re a bit behind the times, Sammy, as is most of your ridiculous post.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slobodan_Milošević

  • aadhavan

    Did you mean Karadzic?

  • http://- Sam Thambipillai

    David

    Thanks for the correction. I apologise for the error. It should read Radovan Kharadzic.

    Strangely, you failed to correct it but came out to protect ruthless Mahinda Rajapakse.

    My prophesy is that Mahinda who is ” running… running away” from the UN Human Rights Monitors will one day be dragged in a net to the Hague.

  • http://- Justin

    Well said Sam. The UN should intervene to bring justice to the people of the island.

  • http://www.blacklightarrow.wordpress.com David Blacker

    I came out to protect no one, Sam. Merely to point out how absurd your post is. Your comparison between the Serbian leaders and MR is tenuous in the extreme. Both Milosovic and Karadzic had been under indictment for many years. What exactly is MR (and the other GoSL leaders past and present) running from – pipe dreams? Long before any SL president is indicted, the UN will be looking for the murderer of two presidents, the murderer who has killed thousands of his own people, and sent hundreds of women and little children to their deaths. Never once has the UN or any other recognized body shown the slightest inclination to charge any SL political or military leader with war crimes. All the lobbying has been ignored. When are you guys going to learn who the true war criminals are?

  • http://- Sam Thambipillai

    David, you definitely came out to protect MR.

    The comparison between Radovan Karadzhic and MR is very appropriate whether you accept it or not. The military action of both were directed to gravely harm and destroy an ethnic group. Both were mindless about the lives of the opposite ethnic group and their property. They both carried out collective punishment and genocide They are identical “partners” in the sme type of criminal game.

    MR may not yet be under indictment but the time for MR is coming soon, as it happened to the Sudanese presdent for genocide in Darfur. In the year 2004, the UN accepted that there was genocide in Darfur but the indictment has come only in July this year. Four years later. Indictment will have to come but as to when is the question. If not, there would be no justice in this world.

    MR knows what is coming. That is why he refused the UN Human Rights Monitors and started “running away” from them, so that, his genocidal acts would never come to light. Sudanese president also was “running away” in a similar manner but he was cornered into an indictment.

    You say that before MR is indicted, the UN will be looking at the murderers of two presidents. Presidents who were murdered were the “Commanders in Chief” of the two armies the LTTE was fighting against. Therefore, the deaths can be said of as military personnel in a freedom war. But what Karadzhic and MR carried out were against civilians of an ethnic group.

    It does not matter how many or how less people were killed. It is the intention to destroy a people of an ethnic group which is the crime.

    If LTTE killed women and civilians deliberately they will have to account for it but two wrongs don’t make one right. MR has to duly answer in the International Criminal Court for the crimes he did, when indicted.. I am glad that you agree that murderers who have ” killed thousands of his own people, and sent hundreds of women and little children to their deaths” should be punished. Are not the citizens of any country, even if Tamils,. the own people of the head of state, the president? For this reason, the offence is viewed seriously by the UN when the crime comes from any head of state.

    You might have not yet seen the “slightest inclination” of any war crime action coming. But when Karadzhic and MR are in the same boat, one being charged for war crime and the other not, would be injustice.

    I hope now you understand who the war criminals are.

    Have you ever heard of “transitional justice”.? Even the traitors who promote civilian killings, even if they belong to the same ethnic group, are punishable. That is justice according to that principle. So even collaborators of criminals are punishable.

  • http://www.blacklightarrow.wordpress.com David Blacker

    “David, you definitely came out to protect MR.”

    Really? Please quote where I’ve defended MR or even mentioned him in my first response to you. Try not to be childish, Sam.

    “The comparison between Radovan Karadzhic and MR is very appropriate whether you accept it or not”

    Ha ha my acceptance or rejection of it is immaterial, but thanks. The point is that the international community has rejected it. There is not a single indictment against ANY Sri Lankan leader, past or present (never mind MR). On the other hand, Prabha is wanted for murder in India, and the LTTE and its auxiliaries are illegal in most of the world. Not a single nation or body is willing to pledge support to Eelam even if UDI’d; not even your friend Norway. How can a gang of thugs expect to be treated as a nation?

    “The military action of both were directed to gravely harm and destroy an ethnic group. ”

    Not in SL it’s not. We’ve got Tamil parliamentarians and Tamil political parties, a Tamil Chief Minister. We had a Tamil foreign minister til the LTTE killed him. In fact, the greatest harm done to the Tamil ethnic group has been by the LTTE.

    “Both were mindless about the lives of the opposite ethnic group and their property”

    What is this “opposing ethnic group”? The Tamils are divided in their support. We have Tamil militants fighting the LTTE, and Tamil politicians in parliament. We have a Tamil population equal in size (at least) to the NE Tamils living in the south. Where is this opposing ethnic group? Surely you’re not suggesting that the Tigers are an ethnic group?

    “They are identical “partners” in the sme type of criminal game.”

    You mean like the “Axis of Evil”? ;)

    “MR may not yet be under indictment but the time for MR is coming soon”

    Around the same time as Eelam, perhaps?

    “That is why he refused the UN Human Rights Monitors and started “running away” from them,”

    Jogging round Temple Trees?

    “You say that before MR is indicted, the UN will be looking at the murderers of two presidents. Presidents who were murdered were the “Commanders in Chief” of the two armies the LTTE was fighting against. Therefore, the deaths can be said of as military personnel in a freedom war”

    Well, tough shit, but political leaders are considered civilians by the UN, so don’t bank on that argument. Since the LTTE uses women and children as fighters, the GoSL should be justified (by your logic) in killing them, since they are either combatants, or supporters of combatants, and therefore part of the infrastructure. Mothers of Tigers support the Tigers, right? Genius, Sammy.

    “It is the intention to destroy a people of an ethnic group which is the crime.”

    Exactly. So where is this intention. Talking about it won’t make it real. On the other hand, there are countless recorded incidents of LTTE targeting civilians as a matter of policy — Central Bank, bus and train bombings, A’pura Bo Tree attack, Dollar Farms, border villages, ethnic cleansing of the NE Muslims, etc etc etc. Policy proves intention. There is no GoSL policy on exterminating Tamils.

    “MR has to duly answer in the International Criminal Court for the crimes he did, when indicted.”

    Which crimes are these? Be specific, please, Sam. Generalised “oh he wants to exterminate us” won’t really do.

    “I am glad that you agree that murderers who have ” killed thousands of his own people, and sent hundreds of women and little children to their deaths” should be punished. Are not the citizens of any country, even if Tamils,. the own people of the head of state, the president?”

    So if you come over and kill me today, Sam, the president is to blame? Or if I come over and kill you tomorrow, it’s the president’s fault? Oh dear. Poor bugger. So perhaps you should indict MR for the murder of Rajiv Ghandhi, since Prabha (the murderer) is an SL citizen. Stupefying logic, Sam. Do go on.

    “But when Karadzhic and MR are in the same boat, one being charged for war crime and the other not, would be injustice.”

    Really? So then trying Adolf Eichmann but not Yasir Arafat is injustice? Ha ha. Sam, try and have some perspective. The world is not a fairy tale book with good and evil. You have to be a George Bush to think that.

    “Have you ever heard of “transitional justice”.? Even the traitors who promote civilian killings, even if they belong to the same ethnic group, are punishable.”

    So you then agree that Prabha & co are criminals.

  • http://www.blacklightarrow.wordpress.com David Blacker

    Here is an excerpt from an excellent article by Dr Rajasingham Narendran:

    “The LTTE is in a defensive mode today, fighting for its own survival in the territorial and politico- military space it had bravely and brutally carved for itself at great cost to the Tamils, over three decades. Even if the LTTE, overcomes the odds stacked against it by the Sri Lankan armed forces and the other forces- both internal and external- aligned with the government, it is no longer relevant as a liberation movement. It has earned itself a nuisance-curse value in the future of the Tamils, by its callous brutality, absence of a realistic vision , total lack of political acumen and moral principles, unbridled arrogance and a lack of respect for the people it claims to represent. The LTTE has led us for three decades on a ‘ Wild Goose chase’ that has almost destroyed us as a people. The LTTE has become an unbearable burden we have to unload from our shoulders. The sooner the better!”

    The rest of the article is here: http://transcurrents.com/tc/2008/09/tamils_in_sri_lanka_time_to_po.html#more

    Perhaps it’ll teach you something about what your worshipped LTTE has done for the Tamil people.

  • nihal pathirana

    well said david you have spoken the truth when comparing the two, but for sam he doesnot see things as true [edited out]. He sees the truth but pretends not to know it, he always try to white wash him in the eyes of the International community to gain sympathy. what ever the attrocities committed by pabhakaren is blind to sam

  • punitham

    Gas chambers and the like would be easily noticed but slow genocide of the Tamils in the last six decades cannot be easily reognised by many before it is too late. 1. The whole of Northeast has been behind an iron curtain the last three years(as has been in several periods previously). There has been unbearable suffering of various kinds in Mannar, Jaffna, Trincomalee, Batticaloa and Amparai. Why else wouldn’t the Buddhist Republic let the UN human rights monitoring in? The damage control exercises of the last four decades at the UN!! Now in the last three years – APRC, CoI, IIGEP, etc to gain time to kill as many Tamils as possible. Why did wthe SLA have a ”conducted tour” for journalists in Jaffna a few months back? Why were the EU delegates prevented from going to the East?