Colombo, Disaster Management, End of war special edition, Human Security, IDPs and Refugees, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance, Post-War, Reconciliation, Vavuniya

Film premiere: The Truth That Wasn’t There

This film was not a labour of love. This film was hard. Damn hard, to put together and to persevere with. The reasons why it has come this far has a great deal to do with the burden placed upon us by what we did, where we went and what we captured. Many of the people we met along the way instilled in us a responsibility. After staring at us with disbelief upon hearing of our ‘great coup’, of how we as students somehow managed to gain access to areas no ‘real’ journalist could, how we visited the infamous IDP camps, walked among the ruins of Kilinochchi, and drove through the rubble of Mullaitivu and Chalai and all this barely a month after the last bullet was fired or the last soldier fell – upon hearing our story many within the country responded not with laurels or platitudes but with sober direction. Go. Do something with this. You must. You have the tapes. You have the images. Tell your story. No-one else will. And please…do it quickly.

This new post-war Sri Lanka ensured that we had no time to pat backs or pop corks or settle into an awaiting job in the industry here in London – there was an impatience and an eagerness to establish a new base of understanding and discourse. A sense of mission that in the next few days those such as Groundviews will no doubt help to form with the likes of this special edition. So when we came back from Sri Lanka and passed that strange phase of settling back into the usual routine of friends, family and facebook we decided to see this through and contribute to the debate. We wanted to take part in the discourse and perhaps spark a few ourselves.

This is our story. Wholly subjective, entirely contradictory. Each of us without exception changed, like all of you, since last May. Our story has moved us in ways we couldn’t grasp at the time, and that is what this film tries its best to encapsulate is that journey. Through our experience we hope to tell a wider one. One that captures a moment of a country at a crossroads. I always described coming to Sri Lanka that June when celebrations had faded into scattered placards and novelty flags as having arrived a day after a Tsunami had hit. Where people were staggering around trying to realign paradigms and shift focus. But for us as outsiders looking in we were shocked at how people who, after the war was won, had little concern about how they got there. Heidi especially for whom notions of human rights, civil liberties and accountability were fixed, fundamental and unquestioned. Not so we found among the people in Colombo and the rest – security trumped them all. The ability to send children to school without worry, that was what they would barter for freedom of expression. It was an unsettling trade-off for us to get our heads around but an end of bombs, destruction and killing was an end to perpetual fear. So who were we young foreign upstarts to question how they got there? Good point.

All through our journey from Colombo to Chalai we were looking for something it seemed that no-one had any interest in finding. We termed it ‘the blank page’ and we were determined to fill it whether anyone cared or not. The reporting on the war had shifted focus to journalism itself. The headlines read how British journalists were deported while the war itself went unreported on the ground. There also seemed to be an apparent lack of compassion when talking numbers good and bad. The human costs of the war were being disputed alongside arguments about how many dead bodies it takes to constitute a genocide.

When arriving in Sri Lanka we were guilty of it too. Having been afforded an opportunity of a lifetime we were all terrified of dropping the ball on this. Be detached they say, be professional. It is a story to be gotten, nothing more nothing less. This is the training they give you when you want to be a war correspondent back home. Go for the human angle – get some tears. Tears sell papers. Tears and barbed wire. This is what is deemed valuable footage back home. So we looked and searched, intruded and zoomed in closer when our consciences tugged otherwise. This is what is asked of you as a journalist. But it is when you are there among the debris breathing the acrid scent you realise the absurdity of such a notion as detachment. It is when you have a lens trained on a man who out of simple politeness and civility steps aside for you to go ahead and intrude upon his meagre possessions, his family and his little life – it is then that you get it. It is only then that you understand. This is war. Aside from the killing and the waste, there is a loss of dignity and humanity that as green, wet-behind-the-ears, under-qualified students would see where veteran professionals would not. It was the stark naked truth of discarded humanity. This above all the ruins and the rubble we walked through was what we are left with a year on. Those faces, those eyes trying their level best to maintain solemnity among such squalor. When we returned to London all three of us cited that moment as the moment where it all changed for us and it is through our collective story that we hope to provide it as a context. It is this moment that is produced for you in the clip below.

Phil: An indelible image
When getting back to London I found myself sifting through the photos I took in those three weeks. 4,000 individual pictures in all. I wanted to capture an image that might in some way help build a clearer picture of those final months of the war. We became the first independent visitors to those areas and for us it was important to try and salvage some truth albeit from the aftermath. But going through those pictures all I am left with is an overwhelming sense of loss. For me this film represents the realisation that what was really worth capturing was lost forever among those ruins. The images that really counted went undocumented and how ever many photos taken after the fact can never come close to uncovering the truth.

Heidi: International dialogue
During filming there was an overriding sense of jingoism Beyond the ever easy smiles there were always those who used the opportunity to vent their frustrations out on me as a ‘representative’ of the colonial international community. My Finnish descent would always be questioned – so just how close are Norway and Finland? I struggled with the accusations leveled at my home region, the idea that western countries and INGO’s as a whole had only malicious and selfish motives behind their involvement and had little concern with keeping the peace. It is that generalized notion that perhaps with this film I can help dispel. A year on, my experiences in Sri Lanka led to an MA in Human Rights. I for one, won’t stop believing that some of us from the outside looking in aren’t out to make Sri Lanka weaker and that some of us would like to contribute meaningfully and help heal the rift internationally.

Guy: The Diaspora question
Personally speaking I am eager for this documentary to help shift focus here at home in London and elsewhere among the Diaspora communities. On May 19th 2009 the streets of London were ablaze with red and yellow. A humanitarian plea at Parliament Square had morphed into a mass of hurt, screaming people flying the flags of the vanquished LTTE. The disarticulation of the Tamil and Sinhalese diaspora communities is an often cited issue on these pages. For me, as a second generation Sinhalese, I found it puzzling when witnessing kids younger than me donning specially made Eelam hoodies and LTTE coloured bracelets on the streets of Wembley, Tooting and Central London. Even more disconcerting was the manner at which protests on the Sinhalese side were reduced to little more than a numbers game between the two parties. Every week it seemed I was asked to join the Sinhala protests. I kept asking what the cause was and the bewildered response almost always came back that it was because the Tamils did it a week before. Come back when you got a better reason, I had said. For refusing to take part others like myself were deemed un-Sri Lankan at a time when unabashed patriotism was the order of the day. Moderate voices back then were lost amidst the din. If nothing else, I hope this film will help steer a fresher kind of contestation, one where we in the ‘cold countries’ will, for the lack of a better term, grow up a bit. Learn lessons and seek a fuller participation however we choose to do so, through words, action, images or film.


By Guy Gunaratne, Heidi Lindvall and Phil Panchenko

[Editors note: The Facebook page for this up-coming movie can be accessed here.]

End of War Special Edition