When the journalist Peter Savodnik asked me to collaborate with him on making The Brothers Shaikh, I said no. I was scared. This was my home. I knew that if I crossed some invisible line, there would be repercussions.
But then I changed my mind.
What convinced me was that The Brothers Shaikh was a story ordinary Sri Lankans could relate to. The story is not complicated by terrorism, or how the war ended or about emerging conflicts. It’s about a gang of men who committed the crimes of murder and rape against two individuals. Not because of their politics, their ethnicity or their religion, but simply out of rage and lust and a sense of power over the weak.
For me, Sri Lanka is a complicated, beautiful country. The government in Colombo wants the world to believe that everything is normal and that anything abnormal is the fault of outsiders conspiring against it. According to this line of thinking, there is no violence against women or Islamophobia; there have never been any serious human-rights abuses. These are, we’re told, fictions created by Western governments meant to destabilise the country.
I believe that Sri Lankans are decent and honest people who would be appalled at the behaviour of these men. About crimes committed against a couple who only really wanted to enjoy the beauty of their tropical island and the warm welcome of their people. Something I fell in love with when I made Sri Lanka my home 8 years ago.
But there is one thing in common between these crimes and the news reports about Sri Lanka that have filled the pages of media this week because of the anniversary of Black July: the idea that you can get away with it.
The film touches on many of the themes at the heart of Sri Lanka’s identity crisis. I was fascinated by these themes, these ugly manifestations of our past and our fragmented politics and culture. I thought that if we could delve deeply into stories like that of Khuram Shaikh and his brother’s quest to see that Khuram’s killers are brought to justice, then we could begin to make sense of things, to understand how we arrived here — and, more importantly, to start building a better country.
The Brothers Shaikh, produced and reported by Peter Savodnik, directed and filmed by Kannan Arunasalam and Ed Perkins. The film was first posted on The New Yorker on 26 July 2013.
Editors note: The New Yorker video’s resolution is very low, making is blurred on large screens and Apple Retina displays. The producers have promised to release a high-definition version soon.