Tuesday, 7 December 2010

a step towards creating alternative dialogue through short/ documentary films within the Tamil diaspora

Tanuja Thurairajah

The calm waters ripple; the clear blue skies are ripped apart by distant gunfire. The opening frames of 'A mango tree in the front yard' sets a premonitive mood to the film about to unravel. Simple, stark and uncomplicated in its delivery, Pradeepan Raveendran's short film captures the essence of the key actors behind the war and the peoples who are caught within. Each frame consists of symbols of a generic war but many nuances are quite specific in its relation to the Sri Lankan context. His second short film 'Shadows of Silence' highlights his directorial growth and deep insight into an innate element of the Tamil diaspora; depression and disillusionement.The symbolic imagery is strong and provacative and succinctly highlights issues which are commonly found in most first generation migrants; a portrait of loneliness, sexual repression and worthlessness.

Leena Manimekalai's documentaries 'Altar' and her more recent 'Goddesses' are powerful brushstrokes on an eroding social fabric which form the backdrop to the lives of the woman protagonists who are personifications of incredible resilience and inner strength. 'Altar' speaks of the custom of child marriage and polygamy within the Kambalathu Naicker community in Central Tamil Nadu providing a stark insight into repressive practices in the name of culture and custom. 'Goddesses', which won the Golden Conch at the Mumbai International Film Festival on the other hand is a celebration of strength and integrity of three remarkable women easing the audience into an aura of positivity and hope.

Sumathy Sivamohan's 'Oranges' explores relations between a Tamil woman and a Sinhalese man played on the backdrop of an encroaching war. Her portrayal of a middle class woman in an urban context lends an interesting dimension that breaks the stereotypical perception of the affects of the conflict as usually contained to the war ravaged areas of the North and East. The contiguous portrayal of archival shots of historical events spark off painful memories of devastation and human loss.

These films were screened recently in Zurich to a mixed audience of Swiss/Europeans and Sri Lankans many of whom were Tamils with a view of opening up dialogue and initiating an environment for an alternative culture of expression. The 47,000 Sri Lankan Tamils living in Switzerland which was at one point an important fundraising hub of the LTTE has a very inactive and fragmented diaspora population in comparison to their counterparts, for example in the UK or Canada. The post-war scenario has positive vibrations that must also spread to such diaspora communities to open up healthy and alternative dialogue. As a small step towards this the first screening of the above mentioned films was held at the Kino UTO organised by the Ahara Alternative Cultural Circle, a group comprising of like-minded individuals and social activists, on August 29, 2010. The brief discussion which followed was facilitated by the organisers and Director Pradeepan Raveendran, concentrated mostly on the interpretation of the short films, especially in terms of 'A mango tree in the front yard' which was screened at the 59th Berlin International Film Festival for the Berlinale Shorts competition. This short film created many questions in the minds of some of the audience who were unaware of the background and consequences of the specific context of conflict in Sri Lanka. This should be deemed as a positive aspect in terms of the role of the short film and its storyline even though on a very technical level there is room for it being interpreted as a shortcoming. A short film is a very restricted but powerful mode of cinema and moving beyond the question of whether it carries a message, its effectivity should be essentially measured in terms of the feel or emotions it succeeds in creating and in arousing the desire to be more informed about the specific context in which it is set.

The second screening, presented by a multicultural theatre group, MAXIM Theatre in Zurich on September 25, 2010 saw more Sri Lankan Tamils in its audience. The short films by Pradeepan Raveendran as well as Lisa Kois' documentary film, 'The Art of Forgetting' created an intense and interesting exchange of views on many issues which arose from the films, once again facilitated by the organisers and Director Pradeepan Raveendran who was present on that day. 'Shadows of Silence' which was premiered at the prestigious Directors Fortnight of the Cannes Film Festival in 2010, created a very strong impact on some of the young, second generation members in the audience who took home with them many questions of life in exile and the future of the diaspora. Lisa Kois' documentary which was shot between 2002 to 2005, 'uses the power of memory to break through the silence and anonymity that characterises dominant discourses of war'. In the post-war context the issues that are brought out by this film has immense topical relevance. One of the tag lines used in the film 'Some say there are two stories in Sri Lanka...the story of the North and the story of the South' characterises a very dominant reality in the history and the future of the peoples of Sri Lanka and the need and the inability of a political and democratic environment that necessitates a process of rememberance. One of the statements at the discussion again from a second generation youth, 'I did not realise that the Sinhalese people had suffered a lot too' lent an interesting insight into how information on the history of conflict and suffering is transfered to second and third generation diaspora which ultimately creates intransigent opinions and a misinformed generation.

Documentary and short film genres are new to the consumption trend of the Tamil speaking masses both in Sri Lanka and in the diaspora mostly due to a severe shortage of Tamil cinematic productions of this genre. In this context the Tamil speaking audiences have become ready consumers of South Indian cinema churned out of a thriving film industry, changing and dominating the consumption patterns of the masses. The initial problem lies when people fail to open up to the experience of such film genres which would enable a gradually process of familiarisation and appreciation of an alternative film culture which presents a part of reality through documentary films or in terms of short films, a sliver of fiction and reality cleverly juxtaposed.

Courtesy: www.lankasolidarity.org, November 2010

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