Groundviews

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.