A long watch: War Captivity and Return in Sri Lanka
Reviewed by Ransiri Menike Silva
I have just been released, for the second time from the grip of ‘A Long Watch’ after an interval of about two years, and found it as arresting as before but this time with an added awareness and sensitivity that had eluded me the first time. Authentic accounts of escapee prisoners of war (POW’s) had always interested me, irrespective of the era or the nationality. But this was different. It was OUR story revealed by a senior ranking Naval officer who had been captured by the LTTE and held prisoner for eight years.
My first introduction to it took place some years ago. I was visiting my brother, a retired Naval officer, to find him in animated conversation with a lady visitor. At the end of her stay, she left behind some papers which my brother waved at me saying that it was the manuscript of a book being compiled for publication about the Naval officer Ajith Boyagoda who had been a prisoner of the LTTE for eight years. As my brother was also a well-known writer, she had requested his comments. This was Sunila Galappatti who had interviewed Boyagoda.
I was excited at the thought of reading it when it was published, but it reached the public only a long while later. I grabbed several copies of it, when at a leading bookshop I found it leaning contentedly against my own book, ‘The Blue Door’, on a crowded shelf.
It is a well compiled book with short informative chapters whenever possible, which gives the impression that the narrator is speaking to you direct and not through a third party. For this novelty in presentation, Sunila Galappatti has to be congratulated and applauded for it is she who listened to his story, gently drawing out lurking details, some extremely painful, to set them in a proper sequence that could be absorbed in its entirety without a break. An onerous task performed with dedication that reveals Sunila’s versatile literary skills.
The narrative leads gradually up from his youth to the point of his capture by the enemy, along with a few others and not by himself. This fact has been deliberately omitted from the twisted, falsified versions touted in order to (wrongfully) convince the public that he went over willingly. It is ironic that this same little group of captives were together during their incarceration and released almost together, thereby forming a bond that has continued to this day through direct contact with one another whenever possible.
From the point of his capture, the story undergoes a change of mood. The overnight change in their status, from free men to captives, causes a subtle alteration in the character of individuals, each affected in a different way.
The fluctuations in their daily routine caused by the sudden unpredictable moves indulged in by their captors, is an added obstacle to any form of acceptance of their situation. These involved being shepherded into trucks, sometimes blind-folded, and driven in the night for long hours through unknown territory to be deposited in yet another camp. Hearing a familiar bark in two different locations convinced Boyagoda that the journey taken through a long circuitous route was a ruse to give the prisoners the impression that it was a long distance away and not the short direct one it really was.
Surreptitiously exchanging facts about the LTTE among themselves, the Sinhala prisoners became aware of the fact that some of their fellow captives were themselves unwilling slaves of the LTTE movement. Arrested on fake charges these civilians were inducted into their labour force which had many gaping vacancies. (Shades of the South!)
The majority of people, in both the North and the South, are ignorant about the origins of the LTTE movement, which was a fight against the caste system practiced by the Hindus, which debarred low caste people from entering a Kovil even for religious worship.
Velupillai Prabhakaran belonged to a low caste, and began to realize the unfairness of it and the implications it had on the majority of the citizens, on reaching adolescence. Exposure to Christianity where all men are considered equal had him converting to that faith.
After that, his eye focused on one target; the annihilation of all High Caste Hindus. Gathering a band of like-minded youth around him they created as much destruction as they could.
At this time, across the seas in Tamil Nadu a secret movement had been formed with the aim of creating a Tamil Homeland, with Jaffna as their chosen site.
Hearing of Prabhakaran’s activities they decided to use him as their cat’s paw. Taking him and his supporters to Tamil Nadu they indoctrinated them with their ideas while also giving them military training, thereby subtly moulding them into the shape required. They were brought back to Jaffna with the main target of a Tamil Homeland implanted firmly in their immature brains, the original anti-caste goal pushed to the sidelines.
Prabhakaran was instigated into assassinating Alfred Duraiappah after which he was rowed away to a haven in Tamil Nadu. Many years later he returned as an adult, with an over inflated ego and besotted by an insatiable greed for power. He even distanced himself from his own family who refused to be converted to his new way of thinking, his father remaining a loyal clerk in the Jaffna Kachcheri, who had served under my brother when he was the Government Agent there.
His activities attracted western powers who considered him the perfect tool for the manipulation of their own hidden interests and so stepped in the USA, the UK, Norway and others assisted by Anton Balasingham who had acquired a ‘white’ wife through dubious means. It was only after Jaffna was over-run completely by the Government Forces that it revealed to what horrendous extent they had assisted.
An entire city had been created underground with housing, car parks, offices, residential areas and a highly advanced fully equipped hospital with vital drugs and qualified medical staff.
Air power was assured with ground to air missiles, air planes, trained pilots and a proper airstrip that our own helicopter pilots had spied from above.
The Sea Tigers had their diving and other underwater training at a vast swimming pool. A special, secluded heavily guarded area was also set aside for King Prabhakaran to indulge in jogging and other health enhancing activities. My family and I saw these as ‘tourists’ soon after the destruction of the LTTE and before they were rightfully reduced to rubble by our Army.
All these developments had taken place with the full knowledge of succeeding governments in power at the time which had had underhand dealings with the enemy under the guise of ‘Peace Pact’, ‘Peace Accord’ and other such fanciful labels. The LTTE was also rewarded substantially when at the request of the President in power at the time, they eliminated those whom he believed were a threat to his position of TOP DOG in the country.
The lower ranks were not spared either, with 600 young policemen being offered on a golden platter to Prabhakaran.
“Into the Valley of Death
Rode the six hundred”
It was Boyagoda’s misfortune to be a participant in a disturbing situation when a highly placed ‘officer’ of the LTTE patted jeeps and other valuable equipment and declared sarcastically “Gifts from Premadasa.” That was the infamous era of the ‘Premadasa Yugaya’ which is now being glorified by his son who is threatening to inflict upon us the same once again.
Boyagoda’s captors and fellow prisoners comprised a collection of ‘the good, the bad and the ugly’, which gave birth to an intimacy in relationship between individuals irrespective of age or position in life, though an unexpected hurdle was encountered in the incompatibility between the generations. The detailed descriptions of the terrible tortures they had to endure is searing as some are inhumanly savage. Yet this is nothing new to us who are aware of the interrogating tactics of Police Forces everywhere. Although they themselves were not too brutally tortured physically, occasional muffled screams would reach them from some unlocatable source convincing them that hidden torture chambers existed elsewhere.
Their apparent journey through a dark unending tunnel despaired them until a faint glimmer at the far end appeared with the involvement of the ICRC. That was when Boyagoda had a new status thrust upon him, that of ‘SHOW’ prisoner. As public eye-wash he was ordered to have a proper bath (a luxury!) then spruced up in new attire and given a good feed before being displayed to groups of media men, university students, merchants and other curious folk, with cameramen working overtime.
After each such exhibition he was whisked away, divested of the false costume and dropped back in the same cesspit he had wallowed in, prior to the charade, in which he had been an enforced actor.
Being the highest ranking officer of the government forces they held on a leash, he became the LTTE’s chief bargaining tool. This transparent ruse did not fool the ICRC which was an independent institution and tolerated no spies in disguise at their meetings with the prisoners thereby enabling Boyagoda to speak freely. He revealed the terrible conditions under which they were forced to exist – not live, and appealed for help. Positive results followed. Their next visit saw them loaded with ‘goodies’ for the prisoners; books, magazines, outdated newspapers, letters from their families, clothes, extra nourishment, medicines etc.
By this time Boyagoda had undergone a significant change. His eye-sight and hearing had deteriorated badly along with his mental faculties. He was weak, almost a walking skeleton and physically inactive. Announcing their discovery to the outside world the ICRC invited assistance from whoever was interested in helping them. It was then that Boyagoda began receiving monthly issues of Newsweek and National Geographic Magazines which Vijitha Yapa had gifted as a two year subscription in Boyagoda’s name. Thank you Yapa for that act of unreserved generosity, a true Dana in the Buddhist sense.
Later the ICRC also succeeded in arranging meetings between the prisoners and their immediate families, which carried with it the faint possibility of release through an exchange of prisoners. This did not affect Boyagoda, who was fully aware of his unchanging position – that of main bargaining tool of the LTTE. Finally, after eight long excruciating years in captivity he was chosen for release, but ironically not as a personal reward but in exchange fora very important LTTE member they wished to have back.
Now another phase of Boyagoda’s life begins. His transition from captive to free man is as excruciatingly painful as the ordeal he had endured in reverse order eight years earlier.
He was unable to adapt himself to ‘normal’ life either socially or domestically. He did not belong anywhere and was a stranger even in his own home. At first, he would walk around the house searching for a member of the household to obtain permission to use the toilet. The poignancy of this impacted most forcefully on me, being almost moved to tears by the deep sadness it generated.
His professional life was equally devastating. The Navy he rightfully belonged to, did not want him, as his presence was an embarrassment to them. They were keen on ridding themselves of him whom they believed to be a traitor. Much had changed in the period between his capture and his release. There had been an escalation in violence which affected the priorities in duty and performance. An added ordeal was the mid-ocean smuggling of drugs and other dangerous things which forced them to be extra vigilant. Had there been informers? Perhaps, but they would never be able to identify them. Personnel death rate was high.
So they mistrusted anything that had even a brush-stroke of the enemy daubed on them. They could not afford to be negligent. Such situations are inevitable in a state of war and have to be accepted.
When he was released he was sick; malnourished and weak with an unsettled mind. But instead of giving him the vital care he needed, he was treated like a flea infested mongrel. Even some wives of Navy personnel whom I know, were firmly convinced that Boyagoga had gone across to the enemy willingly, with the LTTE according him a high position and also financially supporting his family in his absence. Seeped in self-righteous misconceptions they shunned the devastated family of their colleague who were treated like lepers. Learning of this shocking behavior on the part of people I knew, I lost all regard for them. To such pitiable people, I have only this to say, remember the words of Jesus Christ – “Let him who has not sinned cast the first stone.” But on reflection I have the feeling that these bigoted buffoons may even refuse to acknowledge the existence of Jesus Christ!
The same clique of Navy personnel who were captured along with and shared their period of incarceration together with Boyagoda were released about the same time as he. The Navy welcomed them back in to the service where they ran into one another at Naval Head Quarters, and still keep in touch after retirement.
Now here is an interesting conjecture. Many, including the Navy had vehemently denied the existence of these people, so how come they suddenly manifest themselves in human form now? I suppose one has to trek to the Himalayas to get a solution from the hermit ascetics there!
The excellent training given to its cadets by the Navy was proved by the ‘Old Guard’, Boyagoda’s colleagues and friends who stood loyally by him as they had done with his family throughout his incarceration. Treated like something ‘the cat brought in’ he would on occasion be hauled out of obscurity whenever it suited various groups of people, mainly the politically motivated ones. Suddenly he would find himself hauled up to the main stage sharing it with prominent personalities. A (comic) repetition of his former role of ‘SHOW PRISONER’!
The personal revelations and reflections recorded in the book was an eye-opener for me. My attitude to life was changed by the over-all view I had gathered, even though I had myself weathered many a storm in my own life.
This is not only a ‘must read’ book but also one to be ‘re-read’ many times over. It should also be shared, lent, gifted, passed around and talked about at every turn. I am grateful to the great duo; Commodore Ajith Boyagoda and Sunila Galappatti for gifting us this panorama of life, the over-all view one gets from the ‘Crow’s Nest’ of a ship.
And now to end this on a hilarious note. Those of our vintage will remember the infamous IPKF (Indian Peace Keeping Force) deal, with its ‘Parippu Drop’, struck between our President, J.R. Jayawardena and the Indian Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi. The entire country was against it, even inciting schoolboys to parade the streets in protest. At a ceremonial parade for the visiting dignitary, a young Naval rating had suddenly raised his rifle and brought it down in an attempt to hit Rajiv Gandhi and failed. Years later, this boy had confessed to his senior officers that he still regretted missing his target that day, which had been J.R. and not Rajiv!
Radicalisation returns to focus in wake of M-E violence cycle
A recent armed attack outside an East Jerusalem synagogue which claimed some seven Israeli lives and a security operation centred on the Jenin refugee camp in the contested West Bank by Israeli security personnel the day before, which killed nine Palestinians, bring back to centre stage the question of the radicalization of population groups continuously exposed to identity-based violence in particular. Reports that the attack in the vicinity of the synagogue was carried out by a boy hardly into his teens should jolt the consciences of sensitive publics the world over.
UNICEF has done well to point out the toll the endemic Middle East conflict is taking on the region’s children in particular. The organization indicates that just a few weeks into the New Year, seven Palestinian children and an Israeli child have lost their lives in the violence, while it has either maimed or injured scores of other children.
Such disquieting information needs to be seen as yet another ‘wake-up call’ to the international community that the vicious circle of violence and counter-violence in the region cannot be allowed any more to perpetuate itself indefinitely. For that matter, the world community could no longer afford to turn a blind eye on the scores of other such wasting conflicts the world over. The fact that these conflicts are mainly identity-based should not be lost sight of.
The young boy who opened fire on the Israeli worshippers would have undoubtedly had his handlers and terror mentors, but the truth that stares the world in the face is that impressionable, malleable minds could be influenced into carrying out grave hate crimes with least effort by those sections that have a vested interest in keeping armed conflicts raging.
That is, the radicalization of the consciousness or the converting of mindsets into accepting extremist thinking and ideologies would not prove long drawn out amid conditions of war and conflict. The process is quicker in the case of impressionable minds and it is not only young, unexposed minds that are thus malleable. However, the risks are greater with children. We in Sri Lanka are no strangers to this phenomenon. The LTTE had a ‘Baby Brigade’ which apparently consisted of youth and even children.
There is no arguing the fact that it is the militarization of mindsets or the radicalization of the human consciousness, whether the persons concerned are young or old that proves decisive in the continuation of war and conflict. Accordingly, the UN in particular, has its work cut out in this connection. It will need to redouble efforts to bring peace to the ‘Killing Fields’ of the world and ensure the protection of minds from the devastating results of war.
There is no denying that difficult, uphill challenges await the peace maker. Changing mindsets and attuning them to peaceful ways of resolving conflicts is an arduous, often frustrating task, particularly if identity issues are at the heart of these troubles. A bomb attack on a mosque in Peshawar a couple of days back which claimed more than 32 lives and injured more than 150 others freshly underscores the enormity of these challenges. Reports indicate that the attack was carried by religious fundamentalists and here we have proof of the decisive nature of identity questions.
In the Middle East conflict, identity, no less than land, has proved crucial in its perpetuation over the decades. Unfortunately there are demagogues and political entrepreneurs on both sides of the divide who keep the problem alive and intractable by playing on the religious and cultural sensitivities of the communities concerned. This amounts to ‘playing with TNT’ and Sri Lankans are quite familiar with the grave dangers attendant on this process of governments in particular callously disregarding the sensitivities of minority communities. The inevitable result is national disunity.
The sensitivities at the heart of the Middle East problem are of such complexity that the international community could only look forward to managing it better in the short and medium terms. But right now carrying out the latter task too could prove arduous in view of the fact that the leadership on both sides of Israeli-Palestinian divide could find it difficult to arrive at any common ground of understanding, on the basis of which negotiations towards a political solution could take place. The current security issues faced by both sides could minimize the possibility of such common ground being carved out.
As some sections have pointed out, we have in Israel at the moment an ultra-Right government which may consider it obligatory to pander to hard line domestic sentiment on the gut issues in the conflict. For example, the likelihood is great that the Netanyahu government would open up new Israeli settlements in the contested territories, now that it could make out that expanded settlements are the answer to increasing militant attacks on Israeli civilians.
It is not clear as to how successful an US intervention could be at the moment in narrowing the differences between the principal antagonists in the Middle East imbroglio. US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken was in Israel in the aftermath of the recent militant attack on Israeli worshippers and he did well to remind both sides of the need to respect each other’s fundamental rights, including the right to observe one’s religion without hindrance.
However, the prime project in peace-building in the Middle East is the realization of the ‘Two State solution’ in the region. The latter would prove pivotal in rendering the conflict manageable to a degree. The principal challenge is to demarcate the land boundaries of two states wherein the Israelis and Palestinians could live side-by-side and preserve their separate national identities and cultures. Thus, the harmful impact of identity issues in the relations between the Palestinians and Israelis could be minimized.
The US and other international stakeholders would need to redouble their efforts to make some progress towards the ‘Two State Solution’. Besides, the US is obliged to ensure that the opening of new Israeli settlements is contained to the extent possible; since land is a flash point in the conflict.
The above prime tasks would need to be achieved with the least delay in view of the fact that day-by-day the hostility between the conflicting sides in the Middle East is aggravating. On both sides, militant mindsets are increasing and hardening and this must be contained if peace in the region is to be rendered achievable.
Notes towards a politics and aesthetics of film:
‘Face Cover’ by Ashfaque Mohamed
“Black cat, at the tip of my
fingers pulsates poetry,
Desiring hands, yours, nudgingly pluck those roses of mine
In the soft light of the moon
The dreams we picked from the foaming edges of waves of the sea.”
Jusla/Salani (in Face Cover)
First part of this article appeared yesterday (01)
by Laleen Jayamanne
I personally loved wearing a veil to church, especially my Spanish-mantilla. And then I remembered how most of the paintings of the Virgin-Mother Mary in the European tradition have presented her with her head covered as was the custom of Middle Eastern peoples of the Book (Jews, Christians and Muslims), who lived in desert lands. It is/was a cultural practice of peoples of the desert, first and foremost, before the three Middle Eastern religions of ‘The Book’ took it up in their own creative ways. And now it strikes me as strange that we thought it quite normal and proper that our dear Roman Catholic nuns at school wore white layered ‘habits’ and covered their head and hair completely with a long black cotton veil. The forehead was also covered with a white band of cloth. Cultural habits need so much contextualisation to comprehend in our globalised world with instant manufacture of opinion.
But the Persian theosophical idea of the ‘veil’ as a subtilisation of matter is a rich source for imagining the film image/sound, beyond its capitalist market value as a commodity that controls and extracts our sensations for profit. Henry Corbin, the celebrated Professor of Islam at the Sorbonne University in Paris and Teheran University, spent much of his life translating and editing the work of the Iranian theosophist/mystic Suhrawardi (1154-1191). Suhrawardi’s work offer glimpses of such a cosmoscentric-image, suspended, he says, as in a mirror, between the purely empirical sense perception and the purely intellectually abstract domain. Great filmmakers like Sergei Paradyanov reached towards such a vision of film in his last film Ashik Kerib, about a Sufi Minstrel’s wanderings across the deeply multi-cultural, war-torn, Caucasus where Christians and Muslims were killing each other in the name of their own religions. The scholarly literature on Henri Corbin refers to him as a mystic, while his guru Suhrawardi the Sufi mystic, was executed as a heretic. In recent times the shrines of popular Sufi saints have been desecrated in Pakistan and the followers subjected to violence by Islamic Fundamentalist who believe in the letter of the law rather than in its spirit.
One might then ask, towards what does Ashfaque’s film lure us, through an oblique use of the vernacular title? It takes us to the heart of a relationship between a young Muslim woman and her older and rather weary, but utterly devoted mother, played (as one Indian film distributor put it), ‘soulfully’, by Professor Sumathy Sivamohan, a Tamil. I thought this is worth mentioning, given the themes of the film. And through the intimacy of the mother-daughter relationship in their home, we who are Sinhala outsiders, are also made more receptive to look, listen and understand the recent micro-histories of the densely populated Muslim township of Kattankudy. We learn that it is a township of a majority of Muslim people who have suffered a great deal of violence during the civil war (caught between, the LTTE, IPKF and the Lankan army), and in its difficult aftermath, in the context of the 2019 Easter Sunday Bombings of churches and hotel across the country, by the ISIS influenced group, one of whom, Zaharan Hashim, was from this very place. In this film we experience the intricacies of ethnic relations from below, from where the suffering and violence are remembered and brought into speech, largely, but not only by women. Intra-ethnic sectarian and class conflicts among the Muslim populations are also brought into the discourse, not covered up. But the focus on the lives of several girls and that of the maternal figure anchors the film so that it can inter-weave their stories and cut-through laterally into the blood-soaked memories, without actually showing the violence enacted. This is an important political decision that several South Asian debut films at the festival have made. They testify to historical and current ongoing violence while refusing to represent it, show it. This is part of their politics.
In the Lankan cinema, between 1947 to 1979, that I have studied, there has never been a feature film where the main protagonists are Muslim and set in a predominantly Muslim area. When a Muslim man occasionally appeared in a Sinhala film as a trader, it was more often than not as comic relief, making fun of the person’s accented Sinhala or his fez hat. Whereas, in Face Cover we have an entire Muslim community brought into focus through its young and older women and the elderly mother. This is a productive strategy because it allows Ashfaque to go right into the domestic sphere of women, the bedroom and kitchen as well, which he does with great tact as a Muslim ‘man with a movie-camera’. A surprising scene happens in the kitchen when the mother and a relative are preparing food packets for sale, it would appear, and gossiping about a potential suitor for Asifa. Hearing what is being said she comes in quietly and firmly tells her mother that she is not interested in a marriage to the man in question who drives the blue tuk tuk. The aunt, instead of addressing Asifa, tells the mother that it would be sensible to take up the offer because she has no help from a husband, as he is dead. Surprisingly, the mother sides with Asifa in saying, ‘he is short, I don’t think it will work’. This is delightfully modern dialogue, I think, assuming that the girl’s likes and dislikes do matter in the choice of a husband, in what we (Sinhala folk), tend to of think of as an ultra-traditional community. This strong point is made quietly, in understated humour, without any drama. And Asifa does get to marry the man of her choice (of a suitable height one imagines), despite initial objections from the boy’s more prosperous family.
The tact of Ashfaque’s camera is seen in the use of long to medium shots, in many scenes, even in emotional ones when a woman gives her personal testimony of the wrongful arrest of her husband for instance. The maintaining of a distance has an ethical force, though it is an actor who delivers the moving testimony, I learn later. Asifa who is seen wearing a head scarf at home is often filmed from either behind or from the side, sometimes her shadow, obliquely, in mid-to-close-shots and because of how she wears the head scarf her profile is not visible. At first, I was irritated by this but when it was repeated, while other young faces were quite visible, I came to realise that there were other values, rather than taboos, expressed in this oblique angle of the camera. As Jean Marie Straub, the great Marxist filmmaker, who recently died, said, where one places the camera is a political decision. Over the years, his films, made with his wife, the late Daniel Huillet, showed us how to understand this profound idea about the power built into the gaze of the camera. Ashfaque is from East Coast and has dedicated the film to his own mother, Ummu Rahuma. At times one feels that he might be filming his own mother in the way he collaborates with Sivamohan’s maternal figure. It is so very rare to see an older woman, who is a ‘house wife’, given so much screen time in the Lankan cinema and indeed in many other cinemas as well. Chantal Akerman’s classic feminist film Jean Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxells (1975), comes to mind as a rare film centred on a house wife and her daily routines. Akerman said that it was made as a tribute to her mother and women like her. When the mother hears from Asifa that several bombs have gone off all over the island, she turns round and sits on the floor saying, ‘Those LTTE boys… More trouble for us!’, not remembering that the LTTE were defeated by the Lankan armed forces in 2009. Similarly, when Asifa shows her a Face Book video of the Supermarket scene where a Muslim girl is abused in Sinhala for wearing a mask, she looks at the cell phone for a while and returns it saying ‘I don’t understand…’ Despite this lack of connection with aspects of what’s going on politically around her, she tells her cousin regretfully that Asifa doesn’t have a Tamil friend, that she studied in a different school, a Muslim school. Then she says that they have lived there in Katankudy from very early times and for generations, when there was ‘no Muslim and Tamil, then’. These are communities where people of different ethnicities and religions have lived together for generations, peaceably, we learn.
So, I am wondering what sort of politics this film explores and brings forth within a blood- soaked history and memory of a town, (Kattankudy), a region (Batticoloa), and a country (Lanka). There is no militant gesture linked to big ‘P’ politics in the film but the effects of the civil war have marked people and they offer their thoughts and memories to the camera as witnesses to past crime whose effects are still felt. The attentive camera is a witness here, a part of its politics. An Imam of a large mosque speaks of the massacre that occurred there by LTTE gunmen, while the devotees were at prayer, on August 3, 1990, which he considers an event of world historical significance, as we are shown black & white photographs of dead bodies splattered in blood. The bullet holes on the walls of the mosque still remain as testimony to that crime.
There is nearly a hundred-year history to the idea of ‘political cinema,’ linked to the State in the former Soviet Union. The first generation of Soviet filmmakers were all supporters of the Bolshevik revolution and tried in their own unique ways to both theorise their practice and also develop political films with vitality and imagination, perceptible even now. They also taught at the Soviet film school, the first of its kind in the world. Lenin famously said, ‘Of all the Arts, film is the most important one for us’, because of the large illiterate peasantry in Russia who he thought could be educated by filmed history of the revolution and its hopes for the future. Eisenstein, Pudovkin, Vertov, Dovzenko are among the most illustrious of Soviet filmmakers of the silent era, who made films to promote the revolution and its ideals in its several facets. More often than not their political sympathies are clearly stated in their films but they had very different, competing ideas, of how to make them, as is evident in their theories of Montage which has created a theoretical lineage with a deep history still alive.
The great Latin American film manifestoes from Argentina, Brazil and Cuba also promoted an explicit political activist cinema in the 1960s. Each of these countries issued Cine-Manifestoes (Towards a 3rd Cinema, Aesthetics of Hunger, Towards a Poor Cinema) declaring programmatically the kind of political cinema they wished to create, sometimes against great odds, fighting military rule. We don’t have such well formulated traditions of political cinema. In India Ritwick Ghatak was the key figure in developing ideas of political cinema by using Bengali traditions in tune with Brechtian Marxist ideas as well. He taught film making at the Pune film school and wrote about it as well. But Lankan cinema has evolved to engage critically with the social and political life of the country at least since the pioneering work of Dharmasena Pathiraja in the early 1970s, with Ahas Gaua (1971) and Ponmani (1987, Tamil).
What appears to be special in the digital era of filmmaking in South Asia, especially, is the relatively easy access to the technology and technical knowledge now and the evolution of film cultures and festivals across South Asia and elsewhere which have created a new cinematic public sphere, more democratically global than before. I hope there is also well thought out theoretical-critical writing that can feed into filmmaking practices so they can improve and imagine what is impossible. Also, studying film histories is essential and now so easily accessible as well. Cultural memory is sustained through writing because film festivals are intense events, but in their ephemerality, fade away.
Walking and Driving
There is a sense of freedom of movement in Face Cover, in the way it’s filmed, which is surprising because of the immediate connotations of the title which conjures up a restriction on movement of girls. This is so also because of the cliches we have imbibed through the media, especially in the West, about what a Muslim woman is or what she can do in traditional Islamic cultures. Since 9/11 this hostile discourse on Islam has never ceased in the West. In Face Cover, at the end when the actress playing Asifa speaks as herself, unmasked, addressing us directly, about her character and her approach to the role, it is very surprising indeed. She introduces herself as a University student who has never acted and says that she didn’t think about her character much because she was told that the girl she played was an ordinary girl, not someone special. She also tells us that there are many cliches prevalent about what a Muslim girl or woman is. This self-reflexive discourse reconfigures the film in one’s mind. We then wonder which interviews were staged with actors and which are real people speaking of their personal experience. In luring us to do this the film gathers a density and richness such that the cliches we might have thought with, are dispelled or at the very least seen for what they are.
Women and girls are seen walking comfortably all over the town with relaxed ease, on beaches and on empty land with tall palm trees, and on streets, either by themselves or in twos. A small protest group of feminists carry lanterns and walk cross a bridge demanding an end to violence against women. We see a woman on a motor bicycle. Asifa’s mother is seen doing her daily routine to the shops, chatting with other women in passing. These movements form an integral part of the rhythm of the film. The other smooth, fast paced tracking-movement on main roads and in the suburbs are shot from a moving vehicle, while voice-overs narrate the numerous incidents of violence, internal displacement of Muslims by the LTTE for example and the difficulties of resettlement among Muslims who suspect them of Tiger sympathies. These broadly descriptive tracking shots give the film an elan, creating different rhythms from that of the tracking shots of walking and orient us spacially in the township. Sivamohan who was also a consultant on the film, uses the tracking shot stylistically, in her own films such as One Single Tumbler.
Cell Phones – Poetry – Bicycle Rides
The multiplicity of uses the cell phone is put to in the film is refreshing in its ability to shift our focus and sense of scale, casually. Asifa meets a boy on line and he proposes to her online and she has agreed to marry him and says so to the mother candidly, firmly and sweetly. She carries out a small business on line and of course chats with friends. The cell phone screen is shown in extreme close-up, of images of a girl wearing a head scarf but her face is cut in half by the framing and another of a full-face cover in black, which because of its enlarged scale, is quite a powerful image with only the eyes visible. They discuss the shaming of girls on Face Book and how it affects their reputations. But it is also shown as a portal, to by pass the patriarchal adult world of injunctions and restrictions that have proliferated since the remittance of wages and Wahabi Islamic ideas from Saudi Arabia began to arrive in the community and different Islamic associations are formed with varying ideologies. The cell phone’s use creates a sense of light humour too when the mother, standing outside her window, eavesdrops on a long girly chat between Asifa and a friend, about how she met her boyfriend.
A young woman poet introduces herself as Jusla and says she writes under the pen name of Salari. She recites a poem, seated near a man and a little girl. The young man who shyly listens to it is in fact her husband and the smiling little girl, her daughter. In one shot we see the husband seated near a vase of red flowers, listening pensively to his wife reading her poem and then there is an exchange between them. This intricate sequence of multiple shots of the poet and her young husband, is full of surprises about gender relations within a Muslim marriage and female creativity. I cite fragments from a poem Jusla recites, interspersed with bits of conversation with her husband, about her desire to write.
“All these poems were written before marriage…I had had dealings with some man before marriage. I want to talk about this poem in that connection;
Snakes Made of Glass!”
You speak slowly of who I am
(Jusla stands and then walks out of house as her voice-over continues the poem)
On the clothes hanger hangs a beautiful golden coloured pouch
I remember an intimacy swinging on that hanger.
(Husband seated at a table with a red vase of flowers, listening to the poem in VO)
It is the colour of the blue sea.
It was given to me for keeping small change and the phone card
(Jusla is now seated on a veranda in long shot, alone)
Overflowing with dreams
In the shape of an orange
And other sundry stuff
It is full of mysteries
It carries the memory of the man who struck me from behind
When he passed by
The beggar who caressed my hand when he received his coins”
(The two seated side by side)
“What have you written about me? Interesting stuff?” asks the husband smiling shyly, playfully.
“It’s all good, People say they are good poems. I need to reengage with writing, only then will my mind be at peace. I need your permission. I have been waiting all this while for it.”
I have quoted from Jusla’s poem as a way of also remembering that Islam has given rise to so much love poetry in Urdu, in the Indian subcontinent alone. When artists in Delhi decided to create a response to anti-Muslim Hindutva violence in Gujarat, singers of Hindustani music and Muslim Ghazal singers sang together to a mass audience in Delhi.
I will conclude with, what for me, is the most poignant image in the film. It is seen at the beginning and at the end of the film, accompanied with the sound of a violin or sita. It’s that of the little Asifa in her white uniform, knee high socks and white shoes, riding on the bar of her father’s bicycle to school. A fluid frontal tracking shot on a busy road, shows the well-built man (now dead), protectively cycling his little girl to school. In its repetition, it appears as a singular poetic refrain resonating across the film we have just watched. Asifa’s mother should, however, have the last words. She tells her cousin who acts as the marriage broker, that Asifa will inherit the house as her dowery and when this appears insufficient, she says, quietly and poignently, ‘but she likes him’. At another time she says that, unlike herself, she wanted Asifa to become ‘somebody’ through education. And she discusses her employment prospects with care and the pragmatism of a worldly woman.
Sri Lanka…the land of beauty pageants
The beauty pageant industry, in this part of the world, is very much the talk-of-the-town…unfortunately, for all the wrong reasons.
And, I’m quite certain, Sri Lanka is about the only country in the world where, at the drop of a hat, a beauty contest is put together!
What’s more, there have been quite a few unpleasant incidents that have cropped up at some of these pageants…in the past, and recently, too.
On several occasions I have, in my articles, mentioned that the state, or some responsible authority, should step in and monitor these events – lay down rules and guidelines, and make sure that everything is above board.
Many believe that some of these pageants are put together, by individuals…solely to project their image, or to make money, or to have fun with the participants, and these pageants are worked out in a very amateurish way, with the winners lacking the necessary qualifications to represent Sri Lanka at an international event.
And, there are also pageants, I’m told, where the winner is picked in advance…for various reasons, and the finals are just a camouflage. Yes, and rigging, too, takes place.
I was witnessed to one such incident, where I was invited to be a judge for the Talent section of a beauty contest.
There were three judges, including me, and while we were engrossed in what we were assigned to do, I suddenly realised that one of the contestants was known to me…as a good dancer.
But, here’s the catch! Her number didn’t tally with the name on the scoresheet, given to the judges.
When I brought this to the notice of the organiser, the sheepish reply was that these contestants would have switched numbers in the dressing room.
Come on, they are no babes!
On another occasion, an organiser collected money from the mother of a contestant, promising to send her daughter for the finals, in the Philippines.
It never happened and the pageant organiser had lots of excuses not to return the money, until a police entry was made.
Still another episode occurred, at one of these so-called pageants, where the organiser promised to make a certain contestant the winner…for obvious reasons.
The judges smelt something fishy and made certain that their scoresheets were not tampered with, and their choice (judges) was crowned the winner.
The contestant, who was promised the crown, went onto a frenzy, with the organiser being manhandled.
In the past, there have been organisers who promise contestants the crown if they could part with a very high fee (Rs.500,000 and above!), and also pay for their air ticket.
Some even ask would-be contestants to check out sponsors, on behalf of the organisers. One wonders what that would entail!
Two other incidents that became front page, and TV, news – yes, the crown episode, and an alleged case of sexual bribery: ‘Duped beauty contestant complains to police’.
There are also contests that allow the daughters of sponsors to participate, and it goes without saying that the organisers need to keep the sponsors happy, as well…when the results are announced!
Under no circumstances should the siblings of anyone, associated with a competition, be allowed to participate.
There was also an incident, reported to me, where a would-be contestant was contacted, by phone, by one of the organisers, and told that she has a good chance of winning the contest, but…yes, in return for sexual favours.
She rejected the offer and he had the audacity to tell her…in that case, he would ruin her chances of participating in future contests.
My sincere advice to those who are keen to participate in such events is to check, and double check. Or else, you will end up being deceived…wasting your money, time, and energy, and also ruining your reputation.
Right now, in spite of the economic crisis the country is experiencing, we are going ahead with beauty pageants…for whose benefit!
For the record, when it comes to international beauty pageants for women, Miss World, Miss Universe, Miss Earth and Miss International are the four titles which reign supreme.
Controversy surrounds some of the big events, as well, but we need to keep this sexual demands away from our scene.
In pageantry, these competitions are referred to as the ‘Big Four.’
Showers above 50mm are likely at some places in Western, Sabaragamuwa, North-Western and Uva provinces.
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