When organisers of the Jaffna International Cinema Festival cancelled a scheduled screening of his documentary film Demons in Paradise from the festival programme last week, Tamil filmmaker Jude Ratnam claimed he was not surprised.
Demons in Paradise debuted at the Cannes Film Festival in 2016. The film has been screened many times in Sri Lanka since – but always in the island’s south. On October 5, a screening was scheduled at the Majestic Cineplex in the heart of Jaffna town, marking the first time it would be publicly screened for a predominantly Tamil-speaking audience in the formerly embattled Northern Province.
Ratnam said the organisers only told him that they had been compelled to pull the film from the festival line up due to “pressure from the community” but they declined to name specific individuals or groups who had raised objections. “Initially they did not inform me. I noticed that the film was no longer in the programme put up online,” he told Sunday Observer in a telephone interview last week.
Festival organisers told Sunday Observer unofficially that they were worried that going ahead with the screening of Demons in Paradise might put the whole festival at risk, since the north was still an “emotive place.”
Issuing a media statement last Wednesday, in response to Ratnam’s public letter, Festival Organiser Anoma Rajakaruna said the filmmaker’s statement that he had not been given a proper explanation for the removal of Demons in Paradise from the schedule was inaccurate. Organisers chose to keep the film slot empty, hoping to use it to hold a forum and public discussion on freedom of expression instead. Jude Ratnam’s decision to walk out of these negotiations and release a statement to the media had ‘closed that space’, an organiser told Sunday Observer.
In her media statement, Rajakaruna said the organizers had hoped that the discussion may have opened up a space not only for the screening of Ratnam’s film, but for other films by other filmmakers as well, in “a nation divided by identity politics.”
But Ratnam says he did not see the point of being at a discussion symbolically, when his film – which he says is really meant to be watched by a Tamil audience – could not be screened.
“Maybe the organisers didn’t expect this reaction when they scheduled Demons in Paradise. But in part they have a responsibility to take a stand, when there is a threat to freedom of expression,” the filmmaker argued.
“Jaffna Cinema Festival should screen the film,” said Kannan Arunasalam, an acclaimed documentary filmmaker himself on Twitter after the film was pulled from the schedule. “Otherwise history will not be kind on the festival organizers,” he warned.
Local media watchdog, the Free Media Movement also weighed in on the issue. Human Rights Activist Ruki Fernando said the organisers must explain to the public, and not just to Ratnam, why Demons in Paradise was removed from the programme. “They should expose, instead of protecting those who threatened sabotage, disruptions of the festival – wrong to remove the film, whether it was a majority or minority wish,” Fernando said on Twitter last week. Film-maker Malaka Devapriya pulled his own film Bahuchithawadiya from the festival in protest against the removal of Demons in Paradise from the program.
The sequence of events has sparked fears about growing intolerance for divergent and introspective narratives of the Tamil struggle in Jaffna.
In June 2014, the administration of the Jaffna University refused to permit commemorative events honouring Dr Rajini Thiranagama on the 25th anniversary of her death within the university premises. Dr Thiranagama, an academic, medical doctor and author, was assassinated near her home in Jaffna in 1989. Rajini was a founding member of the University Teachers for Human Rights – Jaffna (UTHR-J) which catalogued atrocities committed by all parties to the conflict – Government troops, the IPKF and the LTTE. Initially sympathetic to the Tamil militancy, Rajini Thiranagama quickly became one of the LTTE’s fiercest critics when the Tigers began to commit unspeakable crimes in the name of the Tamil independence struggle. In the Tiger ethos, no one was a greater traitor than the Tamil who raised a voice against the brutal turn the freedom struggle had taken. With the Jaffna University increasingly becoming a hotbed of Tamil nationalist activity it seemed that the celebration of Rajini Thiranagama’s life was no longer welcome on the premises, even though she had headed a department at the Medical Faculty of the same university 25 years before.
When Ratnam decided to make the film, he said he had also steeled himself to face being labelled as traitor within the Tamil community. The second half of his documentary deals extensively with militancy within the Tamil community that manifested in the birth of several armed groups that eventually turned on and devoured each other. The lived experience of Ratnam’s characters in the film is a powerful critique of the lingering fractures and divides within a community that was devastated; both by the wars within and the battle against Sri Lankan armed forces.
Ratnam earned the ire of Tamil nationalists when he famously claimed in a BBC interview that he wanted “my side to lose the war.” “When the war was coming to an end, I wanted the [Tamil] Tigers to lose the fight. I wanted it to end, even if my own people had to be killed,” the Tamil filmmaker told the BBC. His critics tore down the remarks, saying they amounted to justifying thousands killed in the final phase of the conflict between Government troops and the LTTE.
But the filmmaker stands by his remarks, saying the independence struggle fell apart when Tamils started killing each other. “When violence turned on the Tamils themselves, the struggle reached a cancerous point,” Ratnam said, “and I have the right to make that statement within the work of art.” To Ratnam, in a way the reaction to the prospect of Demons in Paradise being screened in Jaffna is a validation of the critiques within the film itself.
“This is the way the Tamil community reacts – this is the political culture within the community that is now getting exposed.”