INI AVAN: AN EXAMPLE OF THE IMPORTANCE OF SELF-REFLEXIVITY AND THE (DANGEROUS) POWER OF ART
The question of how to effectively engage with issues such as peace, justice and reconciliation is one that is proving both urgent and controversial in post-conflict Sri Lanka. Perhaps unsurprising, but definitely unfortunate there exist currently very few spaces for free and open debate. Where debate does occur it is often in the context of intense social divisions, strong hostility towards a perceived hypocrisy in international human rights and a national community which has experienced trauma, suffering and loss on all sides.
With this in mind I welcomed the recent invitation I received to participate in a film screening programme in eastern Sri Lanka. Having attended the programme before, I was pleasantly surprised by the open discussion and intelligent debate the films – dealing with a wide range of topics and from all over the world – generated. On this occasion I was also keen to see the film being shown: IniAvan. I had heard of Handagama’s reputation as a leading Sri Lankan film-maker and the topic - one man’s efforts to rebuild his life following rehabilitation as an ex-LTTE cadre – struck me as both an important and interesting one. Sadly I and the audience were to be deeply disappointed by what we saw (so much so that at least one participant went home angry enough to write his own review!). In what follows I would like to explain why I think this is a problematic film that requires us to reflect critically and deeply on the role that art and artists play in reconciliation and social justice processes.
For a start, I must state upfront that I reject any claim that a work of art can stand outside of its political or social context. This is even more so when the piece is not even attempting to disguise the particular location, people and time period it is seeking to represent. When dealing with current and highly sensitive issues it has to be the responsibility of the painter, poet, dramatist or film-maker to represent these with the utmost care and attention. It is this care that I found tragically lacking in IniAvan.
The film is extremely specific in terms of the characters and setting: the protagonist is an ex-LTTE cadre returning to his community in Jaffna following the rehabilitation process. He is met with distrust and even open hostility by fellow villagers. This, combined with difficulties finding work lead to him becoming involved in smuggling activities. We discover that those involved are men formerly known to him from his life as an LTTE cadre. Meanwhile, having rescued his childhood sweetheart from the social isolation of her life as a young widow (forcibly married to a man much older than her to avoid being recruited by the LTTE), his path becomes entwined with another woman: the abused wife of the security guard whose job he takes. With such subject matter it is understandable one would expect a very serious film.
However, while all of the issues raised are very serious and real, the film-making style fast becomes more reminiscent of mainstream south Asian cinema with highly stereotypical imagery (the violated young widow running in her wedding sari) and incongruously comical scenes (the opening bus ride, which also drags on for an excruciatingly long time). As one audience member put it: ‘it is not real nor surreal, which makes it unreal!’. Meanwhile another astute member of the audience asked: what – if any – research did the film-maker do with the community he sought to portray? Certainly the audience – who were themselves from war affected communities, including a few from Jaffna – felt that the portrayal was more how the film-maker imagined the situation in the North of the country to be than a reflection of anything they recognised as their lived experiences.
This has the potential to begin a debate about whether an ‘outsider’ can ever accurately represent a community they study, observe or portray. This is not the argument I wish to make. Certainly as a foreigner doing research in Sri Lanka it would be highly hypocritical of me to suggest this was the case. I also believe that an outside perspective can be useful: sometimes we see more clearly when we are outside of our own ‘common sense’ world. However I will say that as an outsider I am extremely conscious of how I may be misreading or misrepresenting what I think I understand. It is this self-reflexivity that I find lacking in Handagama’s film. As a Sinhalese director making a film populated almost entirely with Tamil characters (I will return to the few Sinhalese characters later), I was left wondering what Handagama was seeking to achieve. From an artistic point of view, how did he go about crafting these characters: how did he imagine their inner-lives, their dreams, their feelings, their aspirations and their sorrows? From a social and political point of view, how did he expect his film would be received and contribute to the highly charged public discourse on the war and its aftermath?
For a start, I found Handagama’s female characters passive rather pathetic figures onto which all the exploitation and suffering traditionally associated with women in (and out of) war was cast. As a feminist activist and scholar I do not disagree with any of the issues he raises: the stigma of widowhood, caste discrimination, domestic violence, the horrors of displacement and the ongoing vulnerability to exploitation many women in conflict and post-conflict settings face. Rather, it is the way he portrays the issues that I find problematic. His female characters are simply not full people. They have no agency and very little personality. This is in stark contrast to the many women I have met – both here in Sri Lanka and other post-conflict settings – who despite all the barriers, challenges and suffering they face display a remarkable resilience, strength and determination. The aim here is not to get into a war of representation: what does ‘the realTamil woman’s experience’ look like. It is instead a challenge to film-makers like Handagama and others to carefully reflect on whether their characters are in fact more than two-dimensional caricatures of emblematic figures. In a film like IniAvan this is important not only from the point of view of making a sophisticated and powerful film, it also has very real significance for how the public debate will come to terms with the legacies of three decades of war, the challenge of building a sustainably peaceful future and (maybe) addressing the root causes of the conflict in the first place.
It is not only in relation to his female characters that I find Handagama’s film troubling. Given the ongoing – albeit understandable – fragility of the relationship between Sinhalese and Tamil communities in Sri Lanka (I say understandable as both sides have experienced terrible suffering and the inevitable polarisation that occurs through war and the accompanying militaristic, nationalist propaganda produced both sides), it is puzzling to me why Handagama would not only not reflect on this in the film but in fact decide to cast the ‘friendly truck-driver’ offering assistance to the protagonist as Sinhalese while all the sources of conflict and suffering (the employer, abusive husband, hostile villagers, thugs) are Tamil. In doing so he not only opens himself up to accusations – which some of our audience made – of reinforcing Sinhalese nationalist propaganda, he misses an opportunity to explore one of the most important issues facing Sri Lankan society. It was also puzzling to me that there was so little commentary in the film on the protagonist’s experience of rehabilitation. While he seemed traumatised by some of his earlier associations with the LTTE he seems to have been completely unaffected by the end of the war and his interactions with the State. It may be his experience was entirely positive but one would expect it to at least in some way be reflected upon in the film, given that his return from rehabilitation is a pivotal feature of the story. Indeed we know virtually nothing of the protagonist’s views and his motivations and feelings are largely superficial.
If Handagama did not wish to contribute to current social and political debate with this film then he should have avoided entering such dangerous terrain. If his aim was to simply tell a story then he should not have so explicitly set it in such a highly charged context. In choosing to construct a story around such politicised figures as rehabilitated ex-cadres, Tamil war widows and refugees and Jaffna community members Handagama lost his right to abdicate political responsibility. This political responsibility should weigh heavily on him. If he was trying to make a beautiful film, he failed and in the process he did a disservice to the suffering of a community that has a lot of healing to do and a reconciliation process which will take a long long time if more nuance and sensitivity is not shown to how we go about imagining and representing the Other.
Dr. Kiran Grewal