May of 2009 marked the end of a 26-year-long civil war in Sri Lanka, but you would be forgiven for not noticing. Shrouded from international eyes through media bans and propaganda, information about the battles between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a guerilla organization fighting for the creation of an independent Tamil state in north-east Sri Lanka, and the Sri Lankan government went through filter after filter before leaving the country -much to the frustration and despair of Sri Lankans living abroad. This forced them to watch their homeland tear itself apart from behind closed doors.
Guy Gunaratne was just a student when he traveled to Sri Lanka to film a documentary about the civil war. Out of their three-person production team, only Gunaratne, who is of Sri Lankan decent, was studying journalism at the time and was working towards a graduate degree at City University in London.
After taking 30-hours worth of recordings and over 4,000 photographs ,“The Truth That Wasn’t There” is their end product: an 85-minute documentary following their journey through now-silent war zones in Mullaitivu and refugee camps in Vavuniya . These are places that other journalists had failed to gain access to. And while their efforts were commendable and the film itself enlightening to those uninformed about the conflict, this documentary finds few answers to the simple yet devastating question that surrounds this 26-year civil war : What happened?
The documentary had its Canadian premiere this month, screening to a crowded auditorium at Concordia University on March.8 in Montreal. Opening with a shaky shot of the day breaking over a beach in Sri Lanka, the film starts by setting the stage. Maps, propaganda, and what few images of violence that have leaked out of Sri Lanka are strung together by a voice-over to create a timeline of events. Attention is given to protests held in the U.K. in the last decade, showing images of distraught Sri Lankans marching the streets of London demanding justice and international intervention. In fact, those precious few one-on-one interviews with Sri Lankan’s living in diaspora are some of the film’s shining moments; their stories human and heartbreaking.
Once the documentary moves into its second half, tensions rise but expectations ultimately fall short. The crux of “The Truth That Wasn’t There” and the ultimate reason behind its existence is that fact that the Sri Lankan government let these three student journalists in where so many others had been turned out. Freedom of the press, particularly towards independent media, has a dark and spotted past in Sri Lanka. Committee to Protect Journalists estimate on their website that the number of Sri Lankan journalists killed in their own country surpasses 20 in last two decades alone. Lasantha Wickrematunge, thewell-known and outspokenly anti-government editor-in-chief of the Sunday Leader, was assassinated by gunshot in January of 2009, sparking outcry from media communities worldwide. Wickrematunge’s murder remains unsolved, his shooter unknown. This is the mantle that these three young journalists had to pick up and do justice to and ultimately, the weight proved too heavy.
In the documentary, Gunaratne acknowledges that the unprecedented media access they were granted was likely due to the fact the government saw them as “harmless” students. Sadly, this assessment seems to ring true upon viewing the parts of the documentary that were filmed in Sri Lanka. Technically speaking, the results are amateur: the camerawork is all hand-held, shaky and somewhat dizzying to watch. More importantly though, what their cameras did capture was far from illuminating; government soldiers ushered them like ducklings from one controlled environment to another. Fearful of dissenting and losing their access, the students followed.
There are brief moments in the film where the truth tries to push though. While touring Menik Farm, a government-run camp for Sri Lankans displaced by the war, Gunaratne is pulled aside by a man. Away from the soldiers, the man confides that his living conditions are like “living in a zoo.”
But this moment of pure clarity, which shatters the government’s happy refugee camp facade like a pebble shattering a glass wall, is short-lived. Walking from tent to tent, the students admit to feeling intrusive; like invaders rather than journalists. When a doctor demands that they stop filming inside a medical tent full of injured people, asking “have you no decency,” the scene is rewound and replayed several times, their guilt palpable even in the editing process.
In the last 30 minutes of the documentary, the students seem to give up hope. They suspect that the Sri Lankan government swept the unsightly remains of the civil war under the rug before having them over for tea and the idea makes them feel helpless. Towards the conclusion, the film’s focus shifts from the aftermath of the civil war in Sri Lanka to the filmmakers themselves and their feelings of self-pity, a move which though understandable, comes off as selfish. By openly lamenting about not finding the dramatic cinematic scenes of a war-torn country they expected to see when landing in Sri Lanka, they reveal their naivety as journalists and leaving the audience feeling somewhat let down.
Regardless, the filmmakers must be credited for the task they took on was far from simple. Faced with this impossible opportunity to show the world the truth in Sri Lanka and haunted by those journalists who died trying to do the same, they wanted to use what they gathered to fill blank pages of history.
There is no easy answer to the Sri Lankan civil war – both the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers have been accused of committing war crimes by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. The villains and heroes vary depending on who you ask. The same man who is hailed by some as a king for bringing the civil war to an end, Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa, is condemned by others for relieving his people of their rights in order to win a war and of the attempted genocide of the Tamil people. Likewise, some see the Tamil Tigers as crusaders fighting against years of ethic oppression by the Sinhalese, while others condemned them as brutal terrorists.
Despite its flaws, “The Truth That Wasn’t There” ultimately succeeds as a documentary because it does not waste time picking sides. The film closes with the dedication “in memory of those who perished without witness” – this is what is important and why the Sri Lankan civil war cannot continue to go undocumented. Some estimates suggest that up to 100,000 people died in this quarter-of-a-century-long war. These people were civilians, LTTE and government soldiers, Sinhalese and Tamil. They were all Sri Lankans, all humans, who were lost and by failing to find the truth behind their deaths, we lose something even greater.