Beyond Words: The Arts and Accountability in Sri Lanka

Un Nuage Dans Un Verre D’eau (A Cloud In A Glass Of Water), Directed by  Srinath Samarasinghe, courtesy Dubai International Film Festival

As any species, we have longevity. The human race is at its peak. In two centuries, we have evolved so far, for the best as for the worst. Our progress is also our failure. We have, in our hand, an unequalled potential of destruction. We could worry about our evolution and about the sustainability of our specie but we are in inter-religious, inter-cultural fights, we are in social, ethnic, splits meanwhile we are destroying the base of our existence, Earth and its ecosystem.

Sri Lanka lived 30 years of war. The terrorism was not able to exist without reasons. The terrorism is the most violent expression of a suffering. We cannot agree with the idea of terrorism because history proved us so many times that it is not bringing any solution. However, we have to prevent ourselves from the blindness of terrorism, we have to see what is behind, a suffering and a strong will. A part of the Tamil population wants independence.

Actually, we can’t plan the future; nothing confirms us that the fragile existing peace is going to continue. If we close eyes on all the sufferings, Tamil, Sinhalese and the others, we shall only be letting grow the seeds of future violence. People, of any origins, who lost relatives or friends, carry in them these seeds. We have this short moment of peace, convenient to reconciliation and to a discussion. For the conflict, which took place in Sri Lanka, I hope that the time will bring a satisfaction to all.

In this conference, my theme is Art. I am a young director. As a director, I am always asking myself “Will my work be useful?” By extension “Is Art useful?”. Sometimes we can hear “Art is useless” But why?

To listen to a song, to watch a movie, to read a book, to look at a picture, to admire a statue, to watch someone dancing or to go to see a play… The same persons who say, “Art is useless ” do at least one of these things. Everybody takes advantage of privileged moments with Art.

Art is a space, which allows an expression, which we cannot have in everyday life. Since our childhood until our last breath, we are asked a lot, we have to restrain from crying, we have to control our feelings, to repress our angers, to hide our fears. Later, we have to show a social status, we are manipulated to buy things, things we don’t need, we are manipulated to build up needs which we do not need, to assert an individuality while putting ourselves in the big machine, to be a mother, a father, a brother, a sister, a girl, a son, a colleague. The pressure comes from everywhere. We must be strong, self-assured… All these engender a suffering. What kind of suffering? It is a question of image. The image that we have of ourselves, the one that we would like to have, the one that we think that others have of us and the real image others have of you. Often, there is no relationship between these various images. This engenders the suffering.

10 years ago, at the university Paris VIII, I had a discussion with a professor and also director, Serge Le Peron. He told me about Art « For painting, for example, you do not have to know all the painters of all the times; to paint, you just need some technique and suffering ». Suffering and Art. I did not really understand the relationship. I was thinking myself that Charlie Chaplin, for example, was an artist and suffering had no place in his work. I was wrong. I took out all my old VHS tapes and I watched all Charlie Chaplin’s work with the suffering in sights. If we pay attention, he evokes almost all the human sufferings by his art. He is showing the suffering and he reveals his hope in humanity.

Art and suffering. A lot of people, who make Art, knew suffering. The suffering participates in the act of creating. Why? Because it engenders feelings that cannot be expressed by words. Art is a place, which allows us to bring out the unspeakable; in real-life, suffering is a thing that excludes words.

Art is the subtle catalyst of what is hidden. It allows to make bridges between things, things which we would not have connected except in certain situations.

It is just like our world, everyone is specialized. Each one is expert in his field but when we are close to the border of our field, the skills crumble off. Our future, maybe, consists in seeing our respective fields through the eyes of others, the others who have other fields of expertise.

It is the same thing for languages and cultures. We have a lot more to learn by seeing ourselves by the eyes of others.

Art also allows this approach, this vision of the world; thanks to Art we are connecting various elements, which have never been connected.

Then, Art allows to express things that cannot be revealed by words but we are in a world of words, words reign. The most essential element being our name. At birth, we are given a name which already influences our fate.

It turns out that I have, partially, grown in Saint-Denis. Living in the ground floor, we were often annoyed by dealers of our district. We had noticed that to call the police as Monsieur Dutournier made the police come easily, while as Monsieur Samarasinghe, they did not come. It is not the place to linger over this strange fact but the main thing is here, names, words, sometimes, betray us.

Word separates things. If you look at a sky and say ” It is beautiful! ” Actually you are splitting this moment in two, there was an attention time and then there was a logic time, words. In that second time, we have tried to translate our feeling into words.

Also, sometimes we say, ” I love you “. The moment when we say this sentence is rarely the moment when we feel that strange thing called « Love ». At the very moment when we express, in words, our delight, we are not amazed anymore, we are in an analysis. Why do I insist on the fact that Art does not only release the word and words?

The war is already an idea of separation by the war of words, I am a so-and-so, you are the other one, you belong to such name and I am lining up behind such name.

It is for these very personal reasons that I consider that what modern world calls naive Art is sometimes more complex than the work of an artist with the best concept ever. So naive Art is not so naive.

I have read a study on first human murals. The researchers wanted to know why these men had painted these animals. Naturally, we could think that the drawings on the walls were their daily meal. By digging up bones in front of theses caves, the scientists discovered that no bones corresponded to what they drew. Their drawings did not thus represent what they ate. The study reveals that these first drawings of humanity, on the walls, represented beings they were fascinated by, what frightened them and what they also admired.

So we can also, besides animals, find the Moon and stars in their drawings, certainly one of the first gestures of metaphysical questionings. They already expressed something unspeakable. Thus, Art is a vehicle. A vehicle, which can carry the unspeakable to the others.

All that meta-talk allows us to question ourselves on Art and culture in the prism of a post-conflict country. In this context, Art allows a necessary distance to evoke violence, suffering, love, pain, rage… All the extreme feelings that we can generate in such an occasion.

As I said at the beginning, we are at the height of our civilization which, in two centuries, had made a spectacular jump in its evolution. But this jump is followed by its dark shadow. We have behind us one of the most horrifying war we ever knew.

I had the opportunity to read Boris Cyrulnik’s book called ” A wonderful misfortune “. In this book, he evokes the victims of the Second World War. After the end of the war, everybody was too much worried by reconstructing cities and creating the conditions for a normal life. It was too close. It created an embarrassment to talk just after the war.  Over time, the Listening showed itself and Art played a major role.

It is urgent to have a dialogue after so many deaths. A multiethnic nation, after  30 years of war, will have many secrets and misunderstandings. It will be necessary to forget the reflexes of war, the fear of others; it will be necessary to open eyes on a troubled past and not to hide it to ourselves. Art should allow to restore certain truths. Terrorism is not born on virgin lands. We can hear so many things about terrorists and the government, but the role of the JVP is often forgotten in western media for example.

Race notion is old-fashioned; evolution of Thought has made it so, that there is no more, notion of Race, to us, human beings. The Sinhalese race does not exist, the Tamil race does not exist. There are ethnic groups, cultural and linguistic identities. None of these ethnic groups is upper or subordinate. I assert it, it is my opinion, and if you agree, we can go farther by asserting that both ethnic groups who interest us share, in spite of the facts, a common culture.

Few years ago with friends, I shot a documentary, ” Aliya, the elephant of Sri Lanka “, it is a kind of student project. I learned that the central event of the documentary, the Esala Perehara, a procession with more than forty elephants, is Buddhist and Hindu. There are bridges between Hinduism and Buddhism. There are bridges between Tamil culture and Sinhalese culture. We share ceremonies, way of living, art of cooking, Art, an island. These cultures also have differences but here is the right moment to celebrate the differences as well as what connects these communities.

The idea, which comes to me when I think of the situation of today, in regard to the links that can be made between these communities by Art and Culture, would be exclusively expression through images, for a first step. That means photography, drawing and painting. Not words.

It is necessary to put into daylight all that we share, these centuries of art and culture mixed or which existed together.

Then, I think about the children, to add value to them. The children carry the future of all nations. They are the ones who have to bring out what they saw, lived. They will bring it out without calculations. It has to go out. It is necessary to emphasize their drawings, their narratives and their expressions. When the Things are outside, we can look at it with a little more distance and it is where the words can probably come. When the expression of suffering will be exteriorized, communities will have the opportunity to discuss.

Acting could also be a way to communicate. We could imagine following the example of what happened in Rwanda after the war, people who were enemies during the war were acting in a movie together. They can be in a play together. The possibilities are wide.

Art and culture are not the only rescuers and peacemakers but it brings the poetry and the necessary distance to evoke the war and the terror.

In an After-war-dark-sky, Art and Culture will be two bright stars helping our boat to reach the bank of peace. To look the stars reminds us our place on earth, our time and our space. The future is not only written in stars, it is also written by our choices.

The ink is in the stars but the pen is right in our hand.

The future belongs to those who believe in changes, because if we observe, nothing disappears, things change and evolve.

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Srinath C. Samarasinghe is the Vice-President of What’s Next!. As a filmmaker he recently directed his first feature film “A cloud in a glass of water” for which he got selected at several film festivals including: the Rotterdam International Film Festival, Dubai International Film Festival and Festival du Nouveau Cinéma de Montréal.  He holds a Master in filmmaking from the University Paris VIII.

He participated in the French-Sri Lankan Diaspora Youth Workshop “Post-War Reconciliation Dialogue for a Sustainable Peace”, which took place in Paris, on October 27th, 2012, as a panelist on the theme “Building inter-communal dialogue/understanding through the arts and culture: an alternative approach towards reconciliation”.

The event was organized by What’s Next!, an independent forum comprising of post-graduates and young professionals of Sri Lankan origin residing in France. What’s Next! seeks to promote a sustainable peace in Sri Lanka through intellectual exchange and multicultural dialogue.

  • Kusuma Wattawa

    When there is severe political oppression unabating for 64+yrs Art and Culture have too much to do:

    ”But that truth cannot excuse human rights violations that currently afflict the nation as a whole; or for that matter obscure the looming threat of the cultural and political colonisation of the north by the Sinhala Buddhist majority” – Biased and Prejudiced Collection on Sri Lanka, *Gananath Obeyesekere, Economic & Political Weekly, VOL 47 No. 04, 28 January-03 February 2012 (*a Sinhalese Buddhist and Emeritus Professor of Anthropology, Princeton University), http://www.scribd.com/doc/82525102/Biased-and-Prejudiced-Collection-on-Sri-Lanka

    ‘’Since the end of the conflict in 2009, a new phenomena has emerged. That of Buddha statues being erected along the A9 route that leads to Jaffna. Over 28 Buddha statues have been counted along this route since the war concluded in May 2009. The comedy of this charade (what else can one call it?) is that these statues are placed in areas where little or no Buddhists reside. ….’’ – 28 Buddha statues erected along A-9 Highway since war ended in May 2009, Imaad Majeed, 19 February 2012, http://transcurrents.com/news-views/archives/8355#more-8355

    In the absence of Northern Provincial Council (because the govt is refusing to hold elections) socio-economic-environmental degradation is taking place under very high militarisation and unelected Northern Governor:

    ”Conflict-affected areas remain highly militarised, which has made progress towards achieving durable solutions more difficult. The military has become an important economic player and a key competitor of local people including returnees in the areas of agriculture, fishing, trade, and tourism. It has also been involved in areas that would normally come under civilian administration. It continues to occupy private land, thereby impeding IDPs’ return. The government has failed to make durable solutions a priority, and humanitarian organisations have faced funding shortages and restrictions on programming and access” – Sri Lanka: A hidden displacement crisis, Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, 31 October 2012, http://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/Full%20Report_1116.pdf

    Last year a cultural programme was devised in Colombo and ”executed” in Jaffna to which some journalists (including a BBC journalist) from the South were not admitted. Also some artistes from the South were not allowed to take their plays to the North.

    The government determines what ”culture” and what ”arte” and ”art” can reach the North.

    • rita

      Freedom of Association and Expression has been under the control of the occupation army in the North, esp. since the election of the current President. Cultural festivals too. Economic Development too.
      Diaspora in Paris or anywhere will best serve those people by giving their voice for getting them the political freedom they have been struggling for since 1956. Successive governments have been suppressing them and the present regime has been much worse than the previous ones. Political freedom will enable them to develop systemically in economic, social and cultural aspects, ie Sustainable Development.

    • rita

      The author’s ideas are very beautiful. All what has been happening here is just the opposite.

  • luxmy

    Srinath
    Noble thoughts.
    But the ground reality is too harsh ……….

  • silva

    Great writing
    I’m spell-bound

    Needed: forms of ART.
    Not needed: words

    Politicians’ Race-card
    Split our country

    Voters, change your
    Politicians to artists

  • Ward

    Mmmmm very encouraging to see Diaspora youth take such interest.

    Good learning and better thinking. If only there is free information flow inside the country and flowing out we may have wonderful results.

    • Ward

      Who can make the Rajapakses and his voters read this?

      This must be translated into Sinhala and Tamil and posted in local media to reach non-GV readership – to attain the real and virtual intentions of the author.

  • Ward

    A reminder/plea to What’s Next:
    you may see negative peace on the surface but there is actually prevalent an active conflict:

    Many stories like this have been happening for decades, but much more intensely in the last 42 months:

    ”…. That is, till early February 2012, when Namal Rajapaksa paid a pop-visit to the returned villagers of Kokulai. …. ”
    - Returning IDPs in Kokulai, Mullaitivu, being robbed of land, ://www.lakbimanews.lk/index.php?option=com_content&view=category&layout=blog&id=52&Itemid=78

    ”… President Mahinda Rajapaksa has remained the proverbial commoner, the nation hopes therefore to see a course that brings sunshine to the lives of marginalized people. The President made an aerial survey of the erstwhile war zone on 25 September. He flew over the area in a helicopter. It enabled him to see for himself how post-war reconstruction has not touched the villages, and how it is ending up in creating rich islands and southern enclaves in a damage-strewn landscape. …” -
    North atop a new volcano, ://www.ceylontoday.lk/40-17996-news-detail-north-atop-a-new-volcano.html

  • Jayalath

    To samarasingha .

    Hello , you have exposed the abilities that many ways remain to approach for the conflicts in the world . The art is one of the successful system to carry a message to any group of people , as films ,dramas, music.,or may be with old folks song .
    But my view is , the conflicts are faced by us today are much more revolutionary and detrimental .so I think it is important us to think about these problems much wider regard . When we try to discuss these matter , with a soft manner it loses it’s actual deepest nature.

    We should not forget that we are talking about billion losses and tens thousands of lives , so it has a very seriousness itself . Let’s see our crisis which cost more than 100 thousand lives in 30 years , we failed to sort it out before it becomes a serious level . Didn’t we ? .So I understand how you feel and realise the conflict and what level you think you could participate or contribute .

    But I think we should have taken the issue more than we should have to understand the real facts and objectives behind these conflict , then we can look into find some solutions before it out break at this magnitude . I believe it is more effective than speaking after.

    You may aware 89,90 riots , which cost 100 thousand lives . Can we imagine that it happen for nothing ,? I cannot , but people could have own theories , however it was as a growing economical problem in the country , and due to the social deprivation . You do not need to go that far , just imagine the present social and political environment in Sri Lanka . Who makes the decision and who make money ? Only Rajapaksa and his family with henchmen .every thing upon their decision and they make money for generations , they do not care about the educated people or others opinions . They are doing what they think is right . Do you think it is right ?

    So , we had been along our political history like this . It was worst after dictatorial constitution was established in 1977 . It directly gave us a tyrant , legal dictator .
    So, this is how the things happened around us , we as humans have been making lot of mistakes , but some we can portend and refrain from its danger or harm , but some we cannot reverse and got to live with them.

    Therefore we must learn to the real facts and address them ,untill we only can mourn and grieve.