Photo courtesy of Brunch

A young man from Colombo, Randika, travels to Jaffna on an assignment to find out how the war has affected people there. At first he is more interested in sharing photographs on Instagram but gradually he realises the continuing pain and suffering of those traumatised by the war – a mother whose son disappeared hasn’t spoken for 15 years, a once prosperous businessman reduced to poverty, a man who dreamed of being an actor now walking on crutches and a man remaining loyal to the memory of his dead brother who was an LTTE fighter.

Randika’s story is told in a short film in Sinhala and Tamil by poet, screen writer and director Nayomi Apsara, The Tea is Cold. The many unresolved issues articulated by the people whom Randika meets bear testament to the fact that although the war has ended, the problems of the people in the north remain the same. As Randika’s translator, Vasantham  says, it is the “big people” who cause the problems but it is the small people who pay the price. Randika and Vasantham, who has never had a Sinhalese friend, form a lasting bond during their travels together.

Director of The Tea is Cold, Nayomi Apsara, answers questions from Groundviews about what she learnt while making the film in Jaffna and the links between her film and the aragalaya.

What inspired you to do the film?

While waiting for an opportunity to do a production, the producers of The Tea is Cold, Alliance Development Trust and MinorMatters, approached me in the latter part of last year for this production. We decided to do a movie where we could address the youth, who could be reinforced with the idea that Sri Lanka is multi religious, multi ethnic and multi cultural and that therefore it is important to respect, accept and embrace people from different communities and backgrounds irrespective of differences whether it be ethnicity, religion, language or sexual orientation and that we are all equal as human beings. We also wanted to make the youth reflect on the factors that keep us apart as communities such as identity politics, economic interests, the lack of access to information and lack of critical thinking about issues in general.

What does the title mean?

Tea is a central element of Sri Lankan hospitality. There is tea in a couple of scenes in the movie. When tea, which should be served hot, is served cold we are not left with a pleasant feeling. I strongly believe that a transitional justice process should take place along with structural change in Jaffna, like a hot cup of tea served on time and not late when it’s cold. In addition, tea served cold signifies Randika’s wave of emotions in the movie. He was expecting a joyful experience yet he was left with a shocking comprehension of the ground realities in the North.

What did you discover were the main problems and issues facing people in the North?

Right to memorialization. The ending of the war was celebrated in the South but most of the communities in the North do not have rights for memorials of their loved ones. This needs to be addressed by the relevant authorities. I must say again that the right to cry over lost and dead loved ones must be preserved. How can we think of building a nation when we can’t even give such a simple and basic right to people? Mothers are still waiting for their disappeared sons, leading to  psycho social concerns in the community. Some lands taken by the military during the war are still maintained as high security areas, leaving the families displaced.

What kind of real life experiences have you included in the film?

I improvised the script after meeting an elderly couple. We came across them while shooting in their neighbourhood. The couple were seated in a small farm next to their house. There were two roosters, two goats and a cow on the farm. The house and the farm had been situated between battlefields. They witnessed and heard the war up close. One night the couple abandoned the farm and the house and escaped to the jungle. After living in various places time to time, they returned to their land, which was found with great difficulty. The now elderly couple is still rebuilding their farm.

As a person from the South, how were you able to relate to the sufferings of the people in the North?

I really don’t know how to respond to this simply because it never occurred to me that I am an outsider or a stranger to the people and the places that I represent in the film. I only felt like a new person in a somewhat familiar place. I could relate to them as an artist and also as another citizen of this land who has had her share of uncertainties and suffering. For me, artists are global citizens in the sense that they tend to forget their cultural and political anchoring. When working on the script, during research I came across sufferings of many communities in the North. I had not been aware to the intensity of that suffering. With that experience, I broadened my research. As writers, filmmakers or artists of any medium, discussing the suffering of the other is a social responsibility, an obligation of the thinking citizens of a country. For me art that doesn’t address or deal with the issues and  conditions that oppress human dignity, freedom and the right to love, is a waste of a major human capacity. 

Do you believe cinema and art can work to build bridges between communities? How does cinema and art have a healing effect?

Cinema can enhance imagination and show the ways we live, our struggles in multiple perspectives and it broadens our vision and thinking. Most importantly, it can connect different cultures and introduce us to various forms of art. Cinema brings information, facts and possible facts to our lives that could be similar to our experiences. This capacity of cinema, which is common to art in general, can invoke deep and introspective emotions and expression in many forms. Such processes are, in fact, healing processes; they heal not only the viewers but also the creator of the work as well.

How would you relate your film to the Galle Face protests?

The arrival of people from the North to GotaGoGama (GGG), questioning the authorities, is directly linked to one scene of the movie where a mother went mute for 15 years after the disappearance of her son. At GGG not only were mothers and other relatives of the disappeared from the North standing next to injured soldiers but they were also next to wives and children of people from South asking for their disappeared loved ones. The capability of demanding justice in Colombo increased with the collective movement of GGG; this could be marked as progress. We also saw the first ever LGBTQ parade in Colombo, which was an initiative of GGG. I would say that GGG is a collective marker of people’s protest against manipulative powers of the elite politics that have ruined this country. In the same vein my film is also about that sort of manipulative powers of hegemonic politics of the South that oppresses the North. However, my film tells that in a much milder manner but with intimate emotions of brotherhood and love and with sharable compassion.

Is GGG a short term phenomenon or will people’s power make a lasting change?

There are rays of hopes. GGG should not only be a symbolic movement but one with a feasible action plan. It is a materially manifested movement, an embodied movement and that will generate its own discursivity in future moments of radical eruptions. Constitution, judiciary and executive presidency were the decision makers at all times. People’s power was repressed in 1988, 1989 and 2009. We can see some progress in 2022 with the people’s movement of GGG. However, my view is that GGG should not be a movement just to send Rajapaksas home but to operate deeply and struggle against the system of king makers and kings. GGG would become a call for major changes in the culture of partisan politics in the country. I hope that GGG will force the politicians of all the colours to speak the truth and see the reality of our existence as an island nation in a globalized era.