Peace and Conflict


I watched Sam De Silva’s film ‘Circles of Violence’ on Tuesday. I will be brutally blunt and say I didn’t like it at all. I am a skeptic when it comes to watching documentaries that essay the country’s conflict. Over the past couple of years I’ve talked to one too many budding film-makers armed with a camera and a financial grant looking to find that ‘elusive angle’ and to tell that ‘untold story’ about the Sri Lankan conflict. Eventually they all make one more cookie-cutter documentary, filling it up with footage from the ‘dangerous’ and ‘restive’ North and East, smattering it with interviews with victims and activists and tying it together with some heavy-handed hypothesizing and eulogizing about the tragedy of this beloved isle. Usually these documentaries do the preview rounds at the Barefoot-esque venues of Colombo and end up gathering dust on the shelves of an NGO or two. Or, they end up breaking into the international festival circuits of documentaries dealing with issues of war and peace. Or they enter the domain of American East Coast liberal arts colleges and become the defining work on far distant Sri Lanka for a generation of eager politics majors. Apart from that De Silva’s film was previewed at the Barefoot Gallery it is too early to judge the eventual fate of this particular work. However, my encounter with this film is tainted by my cynicism and skepticism and leads me to be – yes admittedly unfairly – even more damning in my assessment.

My main contention with the film is with its content. However, the film was also lacking in technical finesse. It seemed like its creator had bunched together a cornucopia of footage, interviews, narration and music and not paid attention to plying them each with subtlety in order to communicate the message. It doesn’t get more unrestrained than to match voice-overs with the blatantly obvious visuals, for example to talk about returning home with footage of a descending plane or about environmental pollution with footage of a garbage dump. It doesn’t get more unsophisticated than to match narratives on terrorism, child recruitment and Rajiv Ghandi with close-ups of internet searches on the same. Also disappointing was the choice of music (or lack thereof), a monotonous 2-note drone that did very little to heighten the message.

Onto content. To his credit, De Silva had done his homework and had gathered some very interesting footage and found some very interesting people to talk to. And yet, I am still trying to understand what exactly the filmmaker was trying to understand for himself and explain to his audience. What was the central thrust or core thrusts of the film? The film meanders through multiple themes – the tsunami, inscrutability of post-tsunami activities, the chronology of the conflict, the JVP insurrection, peace activism, environmental pollution – without any sense of convergence towards a central thesis. I am not for a moment demanding a one-dimensional take on what is an inherently complex country riddled in an inextricably complicated web of problems, foremost among them, the ethno-political conflict. However, it is possible to communicate the complex issues at hand and weave one’s audiences into their cyclicality and still not leave them feeling like they’ve just climbed off a run-away merry(sorry?)-go-round. Again, I felt that the filmmaker had allowed himself to be led by his raw materials – an interesting quote here, an impressive bit of footage there – and had not mastered these materials in order give form to the film. No where is this more evident – and more painful – than in his profile of Manik Sandrasagara. Undoubtedly, Mr. Sandrasagara is a colorful personality with an unusual take on the conflict. However, interviews with him seem to tower over the entire film and appear to dictate its tangential directions. After about the second or third time, Mr. Sandrasagara’s self-aggrandizing sound-bytes on enlightenment, the simple resolutions to the conflict and the environment begin to grate. Again, this is by no means a criticism of Mr. Sandrasagara’s ideas and opinions, but rather of the filmmaker’s inability or unwillingness to use them to tell the story he wants to tell. While De Silva frequently picked up on and digressed along the unimportant and the uninteresting, he was equally persistent in not picking up on and exploring what were potentially fascinating storylines. For example, it would have been interesting to hear a little more from Sunila Abeysekera and her disenchantment with the Marxist movement that once inspired her, or from Sanjana Hattotuwa about his peacebuilding innovations that didn’t live up to their full potential. Most unforgiving is when De Silva introduces a photojournalist who captured perhaps the most iconic photograph of the 83 ethnic riots (that of a young Tamil man, stripped naked, crouched, surrounded by laughing rioters, perhaps taken minutes before he was killed) but does not return to talk of him or to him again. What did he feel when he captured that scene? What happened right after? Did he witness the violence? Did he intervene? I would have far preferred to have heard more from these individuals and to have learnt more about these issues than to have listened to Mr. Sandrasagara one more time.

‘Circles of Violence’ is introduced as “a personal exploration by Sri Lankan / Australian documentary maker that exposes the island’s dark history and tries to make sense of the deeper processes beneath the violence.” In as much as the film is billed as a ‘personal exploration’, it is Mr. De Silva’s prerogative to do what he wants, talk to who he wants, and say what he wants. However, in as much as the film is for public consumption, Mr. De Silva invites others to take this journey with him. I am afraid this traveller was left extremely unconvinced and unsatisfied.

March 1, 2007