Photo courtesy of Mathi Sutha

I went to watch Venthu Thaninthathu Kaadu (Dark Days of Heaven) with some trepidation as I had no prior knowledge of the film or its director and no recommendations to go by. I feared it would be a pornography of violence that crudely sacrificed the plot and its characters for some greater political point. The month of May this year seemed heavier as Sri Lanka marked 15 years since the brutal end of a 30 year war amid the ongoing genocide in Gaza that continues to unfold with unending tragedies and eerie parallels of targeted hospitals, mass displacement and no fire zones. As the film concluded and led to a discussion, I found it incredulous that this film about the penultimate stages of the war in northern Sri Lanka in 2009 featured actors who are survivors of this last phase and was shot in Mullaitivu district where the bloody conflict concluded.

The film opens in early 2009 as the military makes rapid advances into the LTTE’s Vanni stronghold following the fall of Kilinochchi. The director of the film, Mathi Sutha, focusses on an extended family who have been repeatedly displaced set up their temporary shelters and later a messily dug civilian bunker in a vacant compound.  It is this compound that serves as the amphitheater for the film, including the final scenes as the army battles through forcing the LTTE to withdraw. As an audience we are caught in the dilemmas of a family trapped in the fighting the frontline advances and through it tells a much larger story of pain, loss, identity and love without sensationalising the violence.

Although the fighting is a constant through the film the director, for the most part, avoids visuals of explosions and pyrotechnics, choosing instead to represent it through sound – of air force jets whizzing overhead, the whistle of bullets and the thud of shrapnel hitting the earth. Like the family who receives limited information of news from the front and have to rely on hearsay from their neighbours or passersby, we are forced to attune ourselves to the sounds of war and its silences until the battle lines shift closer.

Shot on iPhones, the crowd funded film may jar some film directors and cinema aficionados in terms of its camera angles and narrative arc but Mathi Sutha manages to create an immediacy in the scenes shot both in the bunker and outside. It is sometimes difficult not to be momentarily distracted by some of his choices such as the illumination of bright light bulb in an ill-concealed bunker amidst a battle. Yet he is careful to keep shifting his focus so that we keep getting drawn into the shifts in the plot. The director also has a dark sense of humour as he pokes fun at social conventions and human latitude in a battle zone.

Although this clearly falls into the genre of a war film, the characters are anything but collateral for a master plot. Mathi Sutha is uninterested in grand narratives, focussing instead on family relationships and dynamics during war time. This is a film about decisions: big ones like on whether to stay or flee; whether to marry your beloved or someone your family chooses; and small ones of whether to pee or to cook. The film keeps reminding us that all these decisions can have life or death consequences. It is through these decisions that the relationships between characters emerge as they tussle, conspire, comply or make peace. It is also in these decisions that the suffering of war reveals itself: like a parent’s dilemma as to whether to choose to wait for their child (who is serving the LTTE) or seek their own physical safety.

The film will be a disappointment for anyone who wants explicit condemnation of either the military or the LTTE or for someone yearning for a Hollywood or Bollywoodesque dramatisation of war with sweeping shots of brutalised natural and human landscapes or monologues in the mode of Shakespeare’s Henry V on the cost of war. The horror of this war is in plain sight and issues of military bombardment, conscription by the LTTE, military violations and of family loyalty to the LTTE are highlighted.

It’s as if the film takes the war as a given. But this strength may also be its weakness. Besides the visuals on screen, in my mind’s eye I saw many more from the material flooding the media at the time (from the military), rare stills or videos from inside the Vanni featured on alternate news websites and scenes imagined from hearing and reading firsthand accounts of the last stages of the war. So I do wonder how Venthu Thaninthathu Kaadu will be seen by someone, especially from a younger generation, without all that background information of what had happened and what was yet to come in the remaining weeks of the war.

Venthu Thaninthathu Kaadu is a profoundly powerful film. It is perhaps one of the most apt responses to the 15th anniversary of the war. I watched the film in a hall that was two thirds full and there was an emotional intensity in the discussion. Many were Tamil and direct survivors of the war. They spoke of their own experience in bunkers during specific periods like the battle for Elephant Pass in the late 1990s but were careful not to claim this story nor to equate experiences, and instead kept emphasising the specificity of Mullivaikkal and their profound appreciation of the film.

It is a film that I would recommend you go and see. There is, however a stumbling block – although it has received its film board certificate it has not yet been taken up for distribution.