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Sri Lankan filmmaker Prasanna Vithanage reaches into the past to comment on rape and the judiciary

Prasanna Vithanage reopens a nearly 20 year-old case involving a poor rural woman and a judicial magistrate.

It’s not the most encouraging start for a filmmaker when he wishes to revisit a rape that took place 18 years ago and the victim refuses to appear before the camera.

WBM Kamalawathi’s decision to not participate in Vithanage’s documentary Silence in the Courts actually worked in the favour of the seasoned Sri Lankan filmmaker. The 52-minute film reopens the rape of Kamalawathi and another woman by a judicial magistrate. “I met Kamalawathi but when she refused to take part in the film, I was not so worried, and I even thought that there was in point on making her relive her memories,” the filmmaker said in an interview from Colombo, where he lives. Instead, Kamalawathi’s absence helped lent the 52-minute documentary its particular form. Vithanage relied instead on reconstructions, using Kamalawathi’s testimony before a judicial commission and casting actors to play the key parts. The result is a cool and distanced examination of a shocking instance of a government official misusing his position to exploit vulnerable women.

Silence in the Courts is one of the films funded by the Justice Project, which examines issues related to human rights in the subcontinent. Among the films produced by the Justice Project is Rahul Roy’s The Factory, which follows the workers’ agitation at the Maruti automobile plant in Manesar in Haryana, as well as documentaries from Nepal and Pakistan.

Issues remain the same

Vithanage has made several feature films, most recently, With You Without You, which saw a limited release in India in 2014. The Kamalawathi case doesn’t initially seem to be a social touchstone, especially given the far more horrific cases of rapes and gang-rapes reported during the Sri Lankan government’s military defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in 2009. Then or now, the issues remain the same, Vithanage points out. “There are so many similar cases that remain unheard in Sri Lanka, and we should raise our voices against any kind of illegality, whether it has happened to a Sinhalese or a Tamil,” he said.

Silence in the Courts points to the systemic flaws in addressing justice for rape victims, which is by no means unique to Sri Lanka. The case became public knowledge after Kamalawathi approached a newspaper editor with her story. The film includes interviews with the editor, who conducted a campaign to prosecute the magistrate through the newspaper, and a reconstruction of Kamalawathi’s bald but visceral testimony to a three-member judicial panel. Vithanage reproduced the text of the testimony in the film, in which Kamalawathi plainly speaks of being pressurised to give in to the magistrate’s demands to help her husband, a goldsmith who had been incarcerated on various charges of adulterating the yellow metal.

“The testimony is very important in the film, and I didn’t change anything because I wanted to keep the authenticity and the tone of what was in the transcript” the filmmaker said.

Kamalawathi’s poverty played a huge role in creating the circumstances for her exploitation, Vithanage added. “When you are poor, you don’t have access to power structures in Sri Lanka,” he said. “I have heard of so many other similar cases. This one becomes a classic problem because it involves the judiciary.” The slap on the wrist handed out to the magistrate is symptomatic of the system’s response to rape, he added.

Silence in the Courts is constructed as a long trek for justice. The documentary includes several scenes that emphasise the many real-life trips that Kamalawathi undertook to first free her husband and then appeal for the magistrate’s prosecution. “The structure of the film is a kind of journey for the filmmakers and the characters,” Vithanage said. “Even without Kamalawathi’s presence in the film, I wanted to deliver the dignity of the characters.”

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