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Lisa Kois’s Film The Art Of Forgetting – Review

By Prasanna Ratnayake

29 May, 2007

During this year’s Vesak week in Sri Lanka, Buddhists celebrated the birth, life and death of their Lord. Principles were recalled: that it is a bad thing to drink alcohol, to eat meat or fish, to commit any crime against living beings. However, there were no messages about the protection of human life, or references to the principle of ahimsa for people; revealing a curious absence of concern or interest in the humanitarian disaster raging in the country. The last few months of undeclared war in the North and East have generated 300,000 IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons) and, according to reports by human rights organisations, more than 4,000 people have been abducted and killed; while in the South families receive the bodies of their dead soldiers. These figures are escalating daily. There is no Vesak message for these people, a strange anomaly for this aggressively Buddhist state and predominantly Buddhist society.

Considering this Vesak ceremony of denial, it is sobering to watch Lisa Kois’s Art of Forgetting which covers the past thirty years of brutal civil wars and assassinations in the North, East and South of Sri Lanka. The subject of this documentary is the impact and scale of human suffering for people caught in the clash between those demanding a motherland and those defending a motherland. The absence of any vision or concern for the overall sanity of the country is due to the fact that civil society has no institutions capable of contributing to resolution of this conflict.

Lisa’s use of Albert Camus’s phrase the art of forgetting as her title epitomises the experience of these dark decades in Sri Lanka’s history. During this time, Sinhala Buddhists have characterised their nation as Free, Beautiful and Triumphant. But the reality is light years away from these fabrications. The sheer weight of endless disasters has encouraged widespread amnesia, compounded by the difficulty of determining what is real and what is myth in the highly charged sectarian and bigoted atmosphere. As a consequence, many people have lost the ability to remember accurately or interpret the past and have become experts in forgetting their own and their compatriots’ sufferings, usually in a matter of weeks. Nonetheless, one day the traumatic collective memories of these times will emerge to challenge the brutal system that destroyed lives, values, a sense of a future and the sanity of a nation.

Lisa constructs her film as a journey from the North to the South of the country, travelling along the one road that unites the country, the A9, which was opened after the 2002 ceasefire. She meets people from all sides who have been affected by the catastrophe and manages to convey their innocence and helplessness. Beyond the suffering they have experienced Lisa is interested in their courage and resilience, their determination to survive with whatever dignity they can under dreadful circumstances. This is revealed in the small things they have rescued from their personal tragedies: the cheerful camaraderie of a murdered schoolgirl’s friends; the laughter with which a man displays a mortar he has been saving as a souvenir; the poignant account of his torture by an ex-Buddhist monk; a young woman’s memories of her murdered student leader boyfriend; and the smile on the face of a young Tamil girl in her white school uniform, whose hopes echo the same timid optimism that each generation over these decades has clung to and then lost.

But Lisa does not only see the desolation of the people. She also shows the hopeless state of ravaged buildings, the small shrines in the derelict, bombed out remains of once revered temples and the debris of normal domestic life, shoes, pots and pans, scraps of clothing.

Lisa’s techniques include soft focus frames, voices off, rapid editing and devastating detail; such as the bullet-pocked house in Jaffna with Sinhalese graffiti expressing the frustrations of the occupying soldiers; elsewhere Tamil graffiti encouraging the devastated local people to stay true to their struggle for liberation. In all places, on every side, the distraught tears of mothers. Even the music Lisa chooses for her soundtrack adds emotional, sensitive, sometimes ironic dimensions to her evocation of the country’s complex tragedy.

The significance of this film lies in the way it manages to capture so many facets of Sri Lanka’s past thirty years of riots, disappearances, assassinations and wars, declared and undeclared, in a semiotics of prejudice. The Sinhala majority, in its extraordinary denial, constantly tries to bury this history and the current tragic situation, whether in chauvinist cultural events or in the expectation recently that a win by the cricket team will demonstrate the moral superiority of the nation. Meanwhile, a huge campaign of state-managed propaganda promotes war and makes bigoted politicians celebrities of slaughter. Similar bombastic claims are made by all sides.

This film represents a serious contribution and a challenge to the previous practices of Sri Lankan documentary filmmakers. As Brecht found in 1934, the struggle to rescue reality from propaganda demands: ‘the courage to write the truth although it is being suppressed; the intelligence to recognise it, although it is being covered up; the judgement to choose those in whose hands it becomes effective; the cunning to spread it among them.’

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