Photo courtesy of Kannan Arunasalam

Thousands of women across Sri Lanka are searching for missing their husbands, sons, daughters, brothers and sisters. The long and tragic history of enforced disappearances goes back to the first JVP insurrection in 1971, continuing to the second one in late 1980s and persisting to this day despite the end of the civil war in 2009. Many mothers, wives and sisters still spend their lives going from one protest to the other, making demands that fall on deaf ears and appealing to the international community, mostly to no avail; the government pays lip service to appease its donors but makes no substantial headway in bringing about truth and accountability.

While numbers may show the gravity of the situation, it is the personal stories that make an impact and create awareness about the anguish and suffering the families of the forcibly disappeared are going through in the relentless search for their relatives.

In his powerful documentary Sri Lanka’s Rebel Wife, film maker Kannan Arunasalam traces the story of Ananthy Sasitharan whose husband Elilan, an LTTE fighter, disappeared in 2009 at the end of the war. Ananthy says she encouraged her husband to surrender to the security forces that day fully confident he would return to her. When he did not, she started looking for him and hasn’t stopped. Ananthy took her case to the UN in Geneva and also launched an unsuccessful bid to enter parliament on a platform of accountability for war crimes.

Kannan Arunasalam answered questions from Groundviews about why he chose Ananthy, compassion fatigue and how making the documentary changed him as a person.

You have been documenting stories of the forcibly disappeared for many years. What made you focus on Ananthy?

I first met Ananthy in 2016. I’d been searching for a protagonist for a long form documentary, someone who can engage an audience for longer, who speaks through action and is on a journey to change their life and the world they inhabit. In Ananthy I found that character. She is smart, fierce, and an unstoppable force. She is driven by love, loyalty and an inextinguishable guilt. Ananthy is a multidimensional character. She’s a victim of the war. A wife of a disappeared Tamil Tiger. A truth seeker. A mother. And over the past several years, she has also become a political figure in Jaffna, fighting to unearth the injustices of Sri Lanka’s haunted past and getting herself nominated to stand for parliament by a party seeking justice. She is spearheading a cause, and we want her to prevail. But because of her husband Elilan, a senior Tamil Tiger, she is also an “inconvenient victim” and I found that fascinating to explore. The short film commissioned by Al Jazeera only hints at these nuances and raises more questions than it answers. The film is still work in progress for me and I hope to return to it in the future.

You followed Ananthy’s story for several years. What difference did that make to the documentary?

Shot over four years, with an immersive and intimate storytelling approach, the film tells Ananthy’s story through strong visuals and quiet observation. Filing her habeas corpus case in Mullaitivu, her visits to Geneva to lobby the United Nations, the emotional return to the scene of the war crime, and finally, the drama of an election campaign in Jaffna all contributed to a narrative arc. At the heart of the film is Ananthy’s forceful personality and her restless quest to uncover the truth. But above all, this film is a love story of a wife for her husband.

How was this experience different to doing the documentary on the disappearances of Father Herbert?

I think the two films adopt very different approaches. The Father Herbert documentary was a retrospective story. It was trying to piece together things that happened in the past, and that left echoes in the present. That film was about a huge number of disappearances that took place in the 1990s, indexed meticulously by Father Miller and others. Most of that film consists of several interviews with witnesses to those events. Rebel Wife on the other hand is told as an unfolding story. We captured scenes as they were happening, largely in an observational way. Retrospective stories are more difficult to tell – they depend on witnesses, to help piece together the story, sometimes unreliably. While Rebel Wife is also dealing with an underlying historical event – the backstory of the mass disappearance event in the final days of the war – the film essentially captures Ananthy’s journey and her struggle for answers today. I find that observational films with strong central characters and unfolding vérité footage are powerful ways to tell real stories. But both films deal with the egregiousness of enforced disappearances. Some 8,000 people in Batticaloa alone disappeared during the 1990s. That figure together with the disappearances during the ethnic conflict, and the disappearances during the southern insurrections, contributes to the overall count that takes Sri Lanka into the unenviable record of having the second largest number of disappearances in the world.

Did you find that the families are tired of retelling their stories or do they still have some hope?

The single question that the families of the disappeared ask after you’ve done an interview or captured a scene with them is when their story is going out in to the world. They are not tired of telling their story. But they do want it to materialise in a form that reaches an international audience. I also think they feel let down by southern journalists reporting on their plight or the Sinhala language media carrying their story. For example, no one bothered to show up to cover the women’s habeas corpus case except Tamil journalists. Perhaps that might change with the protests in Colombo and the seemingly greater exposure to their cause. But for these reasons, even though my goal was a long form documentary, I felt compelled to release this short version on Al Jazeera Witness, where their message would reach millions of people around the world.

Were most of the women seeking the truth of what had happened to their husbands and sons or were they also looking for justice?

The women’s habeas corpus application is about answers from the state since they surrendered to the military and then they went missing. That case is reaching final judgement shortly. But from their experience so far, the callous cross examination of Ananthy and the other mothers asking for example whether they remembered the number plate of the bus that took their loved ones away or having to suffer the indignity of allegations that their sons and husbands are just enjoying their lives abroad somewhere, I think deep down they know they are not going to get justice in Sri Lanka. Ananthy is smart and strategic, she realises that justice doesn’t come tomorrow or the next day. It’s a long and complicated process and she is aware of other contexts where justice has taken decades to arrive. She has engaged with every purported domestic process, commission, or mechanism or at least the façade of truth seeking or justice. Ananthy understands the necessity of going through all these painful steps in order to exhaust domestic remedies. She sees the bigger picture.

Can repeating similar stories lead to compassion fatigue?

The theme of viewing images of atrocity was explored in my earlier film The Tent. The question there was whether audiences become inured to repeated viewing of families of the disappeared’s protests, like their holding photographs of their loved ones. And I juxtaposed those scenes with what I felt to be heartbreaking scenes of just two or three women continuously, quietly protesting in the tent. I wanted to capture the quietness and not the protests. That was largely academic and that film belonged in a different space to a film like Rebel Wife. The early responses to Rebel Wife has been overwhelmingly positive from diverse corners. This is largely to do with the timing, with the protests in Colombo and elsewhere and the foregrounding of issues that Tamils and Muslims have faced, the moment seems ripe for a film like Rebel Wife. Indeed, the courage and resilience shown by the women who protested continuously for several hundred days has been highlighted recently in connection with the GotaGoGama protests in the south.

How did doing this particular documentary change you as a person?

Working as a filmmaker in Sri Lanka for many years, I’m committed to documenting its bitter conflict. Telling stories through film is like embarking on a journey. I learned much about Ananthy’s life and the families of the disappeared. But Rebel Wife was a more poignant project for me. It was my father who introduced me to her. He died during production. Coming to terms with his death helped me understand something of Ananthy’s pain. But, unlike Ananthy, I was able to mourn my father’s death. Ananthy believes her husband is still alive and remains in a state of anguished limbo, trapped between hope and mourning. The greatest challenge for any filmmaker is to find the universal within a story, something “relatable” so audiences engage more fully. But nothing comes close to the enormity of enforced disappearance and the hundreds of men, women and children who disappeared while in army custody in the final days of Sri Lanka’s war in 2009. They were disappeared because they were Tamils.

Watch Kannan Arunasalam’s documentary Sri Lanka’s Rebel Wife here.