Curiously, there is no mention of the enemy, the Sri Lankan military, which brutally crushed their struggle for a separate state for the ethnic minority Tamils. Instead, the men, once part of different rebel outfits, are revealing disturbing details about how they were often engaged in cold-blooded killings of each other. “We killed 800-900 TELO members in one week,” says a former member of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), about a massacre of Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation militants in Kandy. The one-time militants agree that Tamil casualties inflicted by the community’s own members were close to 20,000 in a civil war that killed 1,00,000 people and left an equal number of Tamils as refugees.
Clandestine in Lanka
“The film is more introspective and critical of the Tamil struggle,” says Ratnam, 39, a Colombo-based Tamil filmmaker. When he began making Demons in Paradise, the civil war was in the final phase and it was difficult to give a viewpoint of the Tamils even if it was a disapproving look at the secessionist movement. Nothing changed when the war ended in 2009 with the killing of LTTE chief Velupillai Prabhakaran. The repressive Mahinda Rajapaksa government was not a champion of freedom of speech and expression, but Ratnam didn’t flinch. He lied to officials that he was making a film on trains in Sri Lanka. “I gave them sham scripts,” says the director, who was earlier a human rights activist. Sometimes he presented scripts of love stories to the authorities so that locations were quickly approved. When Rajapaksa was defeated in the 2015 elections by Maithripala Sirisena, only five days of shooting were left.
The 94-minute film, which had its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival last May, is heavily built on testimonies of former rebels.
Ratnam assumes the role of the chief interrogator, staying in and out of the gaze of the camera, to ask questions. He starts with his family. “My first impression of the conflict was the words of my mother to me,” says Ratnam. “She said, ‘Be quiet! Don’t speak in Tamil or, they’ll kill us!’” The words, spoken when his parents were fleeing Colombo with him to escape the anti-Tamil riots in 1983 when he was only five, become the point of departure for the film. Isabelle Marina, a teacher at the La Femis film school in Paris who wrote the script with Ratnam, says he was taking a huge risk of exposing his family by making the movie. “At that time, the Rajapaksa regime was strong and it was a dangerous and courageous commitment to make,” says Marina, who first spotted Ratnam at a documentary workshop she conducted in Colombo in early 2008.
Shooting the Past
After interviewing his parents, Ratnam moves on to his uncle Ignacius Lokanathan, a former member of the National Liberation Front of Tamileelam (NLFT), an extreme Maoist group that later split into two. “I never dared to ask my uncle about what led to his rebellion,” says Ratnam. He does in the film and together with his uncle, Ratnam extends his scrutiny to other former militants. There were as many as 16 Tamil rebel groups fighting the Sri Lankan military. As the war intensified, the groups grew suspicious of each other. Several survivors speak to Ratnam about how the outfits reacted violently to those they thought were betraying their cause. “It was always the same thing,” says a Tamil woman about how the LTTE killed the so-called traitors, “A shot in the ear.”
“It was not just painful to go back the memory line, it also brought anger and frustration at what happened,” says Lokanathan, who now lives in Canada. “But it brought some solace as so many former militants came forward to speak on camera. I was very humbled, happy and satisfied as the next generation stepped forward to put our past under examination from within,” he adds. In a seven-minute last sequence, the ex-rebels sit around the fire, recalling gut-wrenching details of the violence against each other’s outfits. As the dying embers flicker one last time in the fireplace, the rebels lament a violence they were responsible for. “It took two years to find these former rebels,” says Ratnam. “It was difficult for a Tamil filmmaker to work within the system created by Rajapaksa.”
“The film is a real point of view of a Tamil living in Sri Lanka,” says Ratnam, who never left the country before he made ‘Demons in Paradise’, except once in 1987 when he accompanied his father, who was going to study at the Tamil Nadu Theological Seminary in Madurai. The original plan was to tell the story of the conflict through a history of the rail network that connected the Tamil-dominated North with the Sinhalese-majority South. But watching ‘S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine’ by celebrated Cambodian filmmaker Rithy Panh on the aftermath of the genocide in Cambodia changed this thinking. “The film opened my mind. It provoked me to think how to represent the violence in the country and community,” says Ratnam, who was also influenced by French director Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, also a testimony-based film on the Holocaust. With the Sri Lankan society pursuing reconciliation and healing of wounds, ‘Demons in Paradise’ fits the narrative.
(Courtesy Economic Times)