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In documentary about the Sri Lankan civil war, remembering and soul-searching go hand in hand

Jude Ratnam’s ‘Demons in Paradise’ will be screened at the Mumbai International Film Festival.

“You are thinking of the past? It is painful.”

Despite the warning, Sri Lankan Tamil filmmaker Jude Ratnam undertakes the perilous journey of travelling back in time in his documentary Demons in Paradise. At the beginning of the 94-minute film, Ratnam recalls the time in 1983 when he fled to Colombo along his family from anti-Tamil riots in northern Sri Lanka. The riots, referred to as Black July, resulted in the escalation of hostilities between Tamil nationalists and the Sri Lankan government. The civil war that raged in the country for the next 26 years ended in May 2009 after one of the most brutal military campaigns ever waged.

Ratnam’s documentary is not a commentary on the Sri Lankan campaign, which was accused of numerous war crimes, including mass-scale executions, attacks on unarmed civilians, and rapes. Instead, Ratnam is more interested in the memorialisation of a period of Sri Lankan history that is in danger of being paved over and forgotten. Through a journey marked by sorrow, anger, ambivalence and introspection, Ratnam attempts to excavate the “fear has destroyed the lives of three generations… in order to avoid a fourth generation being trapped in the snare of fear”, as he says in his director’s note.

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Demons in Paradise.

One sequence provides a direct metaphor for the current state in the north of Sri Lanka, which was controlled by the Liberation of Tamil Tigers Eelam until the end of the ethnic conflict. The North is now both a tourist site and a construction site. Tractors and diggers are hard at work, building over what once belonged to the local Tamils. The rebuilding is unmistakably accompanied by the threat of erasure. “How did our hopes get turned into such cruelty,” Ratnam wonders aloud as a tree is cut down.

The documentary is being screened at the Mumbai International Film Festival (January 29-February 3) under the South Asia section curated by filmmaker and editor Reena Mohan. “My selection is a tribute to the incredible strength of filmmakers working under security threats, financial constraints and social stigmas, offering an astonishing diversity in subject and treatment – from the deeply personal to the heavily stylised; from big budgets to working as a collective and sourcing crowd funding; from the observational to the humourous, from the poetic and elusive to the intensely political; from films that have emerged during short workshops to those that have taken five or 10 years to make; from the works of veterans to films by Buddhist monks; films that have premiered in Cannes, Berlinale, Locarno, Busan,” Mohan said.

Demons in Paradise, which will be shown alongside short films from Sri Lanka and other countries, emerged out of a residency called Breaking Frames – Making Films. “​I thought ​Jude’s film, which is deeply personal and took 10 years to make, fitted in well with these workshop films,” Mohan said.

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Demons in Paradise.

Demons in Paradise unfolds as an associative memory film, in which one train of thought leads to another. In the case of this documentary, the train is a literal thing. Ratnam travels with his son on the same red train that once brought him to Colombo. He visits places where atrocities against Tamils were committed, including the Borella bus station, where a photograph of a Tamil man stripped naked and then burnt to death is one of the reminders of the horrors of the past.

Ratnam tracks down the photographer, who, when asked why he clicked away instead of saving the man, simply says, he could not be saved, but at least I could serve as a witness to what took place.

Ratnam’s parents are drawn into the film. They demonstrate how they escaped the riots by changing out of their clothes. Ratnam makes them repeat their actions – a device he picked up from Cambodian director Rithy Panh. In his landmark documentary The Missing Picture (2013), Panh reconstructed, through the use of dioramas, photographs and archival footage, his memories of the Khmer Rogue genocide of the mid-1970s.

In his quest to reopen wounds that may probably never heal, Ratnam turns the lens on his own community. He ropes in his uncle Manoranjan, a former LTTE fighter who rebelled against the terrorist outfit after witnessing its repeated attacks on rival Tamil groups. Manoranjan makes a frequently teary return to his village, where he meets the Sinhalese neighbours who rescued his family from rioters, as well as members from rival militant organisations.

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Demons in Paradise.

The act of remembering is laced with the need for self-interrogation. Rather than wallowing in victimhood and nostalgia, Demons in Paradise asks hard questions about the culpability of Tamilians in their current state. The answer to the query “Was the violence only within the Tigers or did it exist within the community” ensures that the film always keeps its characters and viewers on edge.

The 39-year-old filmmaker ventured into filmmaking after procuring a degree in sociology and working with non-governmental groups and human rights activists during the civil war. Ratnam was turned off by the politics within the non-profit sector, which pushed him towards another way of dealing with his feelings about the Tamil movement.

“I came to a point of disillusionment – so much needed to be done, and what one was doing was insignificant,” he said. “Plus, the politics with the NGO sector was disturbing. It pricked me, and I was looking for a way out.”

Inspiration came from strange places, including a viewing of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936). “That a single human being could capture the condition of the human race – that was probably the moment,” Ratnam said about Chaplin’s critique of industrialisation.

At a filmmaking workshop, the one where he watched Panh’s documentary, Ratnam pitched an idea for a short film recreating his train journey back to the northern Sri Lanka. The short evolved into a ten-year project that culminated in Demons in Paradise.

“You don’t get to choose a film you want to make, the film chooses you,” Ratnam observed.

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Demons in Paradise.

Over 31 days spread over a decade, Ratnam filmed conversations with his uncle – which included making him recreate his attempts to disguise himself and escape from a Sri Lankan Army checkpost – and meetings with former militants. A fireside debate between these men, many of whom were battling each other as well as the Sri Lankan army in the ’80s and ’90s, reveals both the fissures in the Tamil independence struggle and the soul-searching that marks those who survived the end of the ethnic conflict.

“I think that sequence is a kind of tour de force of the film,” Ratnam said. “While I was questioning the violence within the Tamil community, I didn’t want to push my subjects into aligning with my thought process.” That is why, he says, he eschewed his ruminative voiceover and fell increasingly silent as he travelled northwards with his uncle. Other voices take over, and they have a lot to say about what happened and what is continuing to unfold.

The process of filming was unsurprisingly enervating. “I would get tired after filming for a few days with my uncle,” Ratnam revealed. “During my conversations with him, he would break down and I would break down as well. It was emotionally draining to have to go through that kind of process. I never approached the film in a rational sense, and by the end of the process, I was exhausted too.”

Jude Ratnam.
Jude Ratnam.

Given its elliptical approach, the documentary will not satisfy viewers looking for a linear account of the aftermath of the war. Nor will it please audiences who want to hold the Sinhalese leadership responsible for their condition.

The point of the documentary is to interrogate, Ratnam said, and by doing so, hold on to the spirit of the ideas that have animated the Tamil freedom movement.

“The violence that came from within the Tamil community was sometimes more brutal than what the Army did,” he said. “Somebody has to do this questioning. Some filmmaker friends told me I was playing into the hands of Sinhalese extremists. There are those who say the film vouches for the Tamils, those who say the film is anti-Tamil, and then those who say that the film is only about Tamil problems. The film does not fit with a lot of people.”

Ratnam has screened his documentary at mostly private screenings back home, once at the Goethe Institut in Delhi, and at the Cannes Film Festival in the special screenings section in 2017. Demons in Paradise has been cleared uncut by Sri Lankan censors, but Ratnam is facing obstacles in releasing his film in his country. “The distribution mechanism is monetary-based and there are only two major distributors who control the market,” he pointed out.

Some battles simply never end.

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