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Immortalizing the spirit of Rajani Thiranagama; a gift to humanity

(February 07, Atlanta, Sri Lanka Guardian) NO MORE TEARS, SISTER reflects Sri Lanka’s continuing nightmare and the struggle for deliverance says young Udara Soysa of Oglethorpe University in the US who interviewed the producer of this soul-tearing, soul-searching, soul ennobling documentary directed by Helene Klodawsky whose mother survived the Auschwitz horror.

An exclusive to Sri Lanka Guardian

Udara: What inspired you to do this film?

Helene: When in 2003 I was first approached by the National Film Board of Canada to create a point of view documentary about women and war, I considered myself up to the task. Besides making films about other conflict zones, I had a personal connection as well. My mother survived Auschwitz and other concentration camps, so I have lived close to the shadows and aftershocks of war all my life. Growing up within a community of refugees and victims of torture, I witnessed both despair and formidable resilience as responses to indelible loss. Questions about war and women’s experience in war were part of my daily vocabulary. The question related to this particular assignment was “which war”? Sadly in 2003, as today, there was an over-abundance of conflict situations to choose from!

Udara: When did you first hear about the Sri Lankan conflict? Helene:

I was drawn to Sri Lanka after reading a collection of essays in Feminists Under Fire: Exchanges Across War Zones (Co-edited by Malathi del Alwis, Wenona Giles, Edith Klein & Neluka Silva) a book about women and ethnic nationalism. The writings provoked many questions regarding how ethnic conflict and nationalist struggles impact women – be they victims of war, militant fighters, or peace builders. Were women, torn on the one hand, between loyalties to their ethnic community and, on the other hand, the community of women?

Given that there was a ceasefire in Sri Lanka at the time, I had some pretty romantic notions about the potential of peace building through women’s organizations on both sides of the ethnic divide. I contacted Malathi del Alwis, one of the book’s editors. After hearing me out, Malathi diplomatically pointed out that I was overly optimistic about peace in Sri Lanka being immanent, and directed me to reports by The University Teacher’s for Human Rights. In the course of my conversation with Malathi I learned about the founder of UTHR, Dr. Rajani Thiranagama. The more we talked, the more I felt sure that Rajani would be the subject of the film. I sensed that several themes could be explored: nationalism vs. anti-nationalism, the lives of women as both participants and innocent victims of war, and the belief in armed struggle, versus a critique of militarism.

Not long afterwards, through intermediaries, I spoke to Rajani’s eldest sister, Nirmala Rajasingam and explained the purpose of my call: “I want to do a documentary about your sister’s life in the context of the war in Sri Lanka”. How exhilarating it was to hear Nirmala’s response, “We’ve been waiting for you for 15 years”. And so began a close collaboration between myself and Rajani’s family in exile.

Image: Rajani cycled to the university and back home every day. On that fateful day her killers chose this path to commit their foul deed and end the life of one of the most compassionate, considerate and lovable human being, a great credit to her community, an idealist and visionary who pursued her dreams with relentless fervour.

Udara: What was your best memory during the production?

Helene:
After an initial research visit to Sri Lanka, I returned for five weeks of shooting with my Canadian crew. In Colombo we met members of our Sri Lankan team – a fantastic group of professional filmmakers and technicians, lead by well-known veteran filmmaker Dharmasena Pathiraja (our associate producer in Sri Lanka). We were continuously overwhelmed by the Sri Lankan crew’s hard work, ingenuity, generosity and fearlessness. Certainly we could never have made the documentary without Pathi. Assistant director Elmo Halliday and Art director Lal Harindranath were incredibly gifted contributors - as well many others.

In addition, being with Rajani’s family – from her elderly parents to her sisters Sumathy and Vasuki and grown daughters, Narmada and Sharika always felt like a privilege. The same was true for Rajani’s husband Dayapala. The warmth, courage and hospitality of everyone we filmed - even those with serious security concerns - was tremendously inspiring.

Udara: Who were some of the prominent supporters who assisted with this particular production?

Helene:
Besides Pathi’s fantastic team and production support – a number of Rajani’s friends and political associates in UTHR were particularly supportive - whether by speaking to us about Rajani’s life, finding film locations, or courageously revealing on film, the realities of war in Sri Lanka. Certainly having the National Film Board as producer was a huge advantage. Being associated with a recognized Canadian institution certainly opened doors.

Udara: Do tell us more about the challenges that you had to overcome during this endeavor?

Helene:
Security was a grave concern as we filmed people living underground - people threatened by the State, the LTTE or both. In filmic terms, there were no surviving archives, few photos, and, no access to filming in Jaffna where Rajani had lived and worked. In addition, most of her friends, former students and colleagues were far too fearful to speak about her on camera. It was decided fairly early on in the process, that almost everything would have to be reconstructed, although always based on careful research. NO MORE TEARS SISTER is about as far as you can get from a cinéma vérité documentary. Luckily Rajani’s oldest sister and husband – who themselves were leading activists during Sri Lanka’s tumultuous years of ethnic strife – were willing to give everything they could to the process, joined by Rajani’s younger sisters, parents, daughters and fellow activists.

(Interviews with the family: http://www.pbs.org/pov/pov2006/nomoretears/about.html)

Udara: How was the response that you received from Sri Lankan Diaspora in regard to this movie?

Helene:
I have been told that the film has made a difference in opening up space for people throughout the Sri Lankan Diaspora to speak about their personal tragedies and political histories. Many people the world over have seen the film. When we began production, there was tremendous fear associated with participants revealing too much. However, due to the great exposure we have had in the US and Canada, (the film was broadcast on POV/ PBS and the Canada’s DOC channel and CBC, and reviewed by countless newspapers and journals); some Tamils became more confident in what could be publically expressed. The National Film Board of Canada has been great in linking the film to several Human Rights Film Series around the world, as well making it available to groups and universities.

(See http://www3.nfb.ca/webextension/nomoretearssister/)

Udara: Are you planning to do any similar films in future on Sri Lanka?

Helene:
Given that Sri Lanka has so many notable filmmakers, I would love to see documentaries emerging from their “insider” perspective”. It would be an honour to get involved in another project if I could be useful to any future film on dialogue and reconciliation.

Udara: What is your take on the current situation with Sri Lankan war?

Helene:
Obviously, as evidenced by the recent murders of several Sri Lankan journalists and aid workers, the fear and politics of impunity that haunted Rajani’s life are still very alive today. For the tens of thousands of refugees trapped in a humanitarian disaster between the army and militants, and for those trying to tell the world what is really going on, the present seems bleak. My sense is that Rajani’s words speak as loudly today as they did twenty years ago. The war in Sri Lanka cannot be solved through militarism, but through political negotiations leading to justice for minority communities, whose grievances have been festering for decades, since independence.

Udara: What are some of the current productions that you are working on?

Helene:
I have recently completed Family Motel, a feature length film, using non-professional actors, on homelessness among refugees in Canada. My critical look at the expansion of mall culture throughout the world, entitled Malls R US will premiere shortly at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Presently I am writing a fiction feature script as well as developing a documentary about the role of confession in today’s media – in part an examination of how global capitalism is shaping our personal and collective identities.

Udara: What is your message to our Sri Lankan readers?

Helene:
As Canadians working on No More Tears Sister we were overwhelmed with the beauty of your country and people. We want to imagine a time when Sri Lankans of all backgrounds will live without war and fear, supported by a system of justice and inspired leadership. We ask whether one day we will witness a Sri Lankan Truth and Reconciliation Process that will expose without intimidation the tragic histories of so many other Sri Lankan families.

Prizes: Chris Awards, Columbus International Film Festival, USA, 2005, Tri Continental Film Festival, India, 2006, Second Prize, Spirit of Freedom Award Best Documentary, Jerusalem Film Festival, 2006; Nomination, Best Political Documentary, Academy of Canadian Cinema, 2006, Best Cinematography, Gemini Awards, Academy of Canadian Cinema, 2006, Cine Eagle Award, USA, 2006. One of Ten Audience Pics at Hot Docs International Documentary Festival, 2005

-Sri Lanka Guardian

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