Ilankai Tamil Sangam

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Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

Film Review of 'My Daughter, The Terrorist'

by Charles Sarvan, August 22, 2008, published in ‘Confluence: South Asian Perspectives’, London, August 2008

The documentary is a powerful indictment of war, of the destruction and tragedy it causes. It is perceptive, deeply moving and thought-provoking. Film is a visual medium, and it would take much space to deal with even one, fleeting, scene. A humane document, My daughter, the terrorist should be seen by those concerned about conflict, the destruction it causes, the waste it produces, and the tragedy it leaves behind.

The title’s unusual collocation of ‘my daughter’ and ‘terrorist’ is reminiscent of Kureishi’s ‘My son, the fanatic’. (In what follows, I use the word “terrorist” without each time cumbersomely qualifying it.) Though “My daughter” indicates a maternal or paternal perspective, the focus is shared between two female members of Sri Lanka’s Tamil ‘Black Tigers’, Puhalchudar and Dharshika (both 24, close friends for several years) and the latter’s mother, Antonia – the name suggests she’s Roman Catholic. The film by Norwegian Beate Arnestad, made around 2005, offers an almost unique insight into the Tigers. First-hand insight is rare because the state has forbidden foreign journalists entry into the conflict-zone.  Ostensibly out of concern for their safety, it is an effective way of shutting out media attention, and world awareness. The Tigers, for reasons of their own security, do not give access to outsiders. Permission, in this case, was most unusual. The film has won wide recognition, including the prize for best documentary at St Petersburg, 2007. Its running time is 60 minutes and the language Tamil. Sub-titles are available in Norwegian, English and French. (One wishes, very much, that the sub-titles in English were more substantial and complete.) To obtain a DVD copy, see:           

Moving to preliminary considerations, “terrorist” is the current term of political abuse, used, over-used and misused (Sarvan, Sri Lanka: Reign of Anomy). Each side claims the other is a terrorist and that the struggle is against much-execrated terrorism. States unleash terror on the civilian population on a much larger scale than any terrorist group: Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Robert Mugabe and the military junta of Burma and North Korea come to mind. In July 2008, Omar-al-Bashir, president of Sudan, was accused of crimes against humanity, and Bosnian Radovon Karadzic arrested. The latter’s actions left 100,000 dead, with “rape licensed as a tactic of terror and humiliation” (The Guardian, London, 22 July 2008).  Those killed by states run into millions, and numerically bear no comparison at all with those killed by terrorist organisations: Stalin, Hitler, Chairman Mao. As is remarked in J. M. Coetzee’s novel, Diary of a Bad Year, dropping bombs from high altitude, causing civilian casualties, is “no less an act of terror than blowing oneself up in a crowd” (2007: 21). However, state-terrorism tends not to be viewed as criminal, the attitude being that no outside political entity has the right to prescribe to a sovereign state what methods and means it should employ to preserve itself: see Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem. States carry out their terrorism blatantly, openly using all the fire-power in their arsenal, including fighter-bombers, attack-helicopters and tanks, indifferent to civilian casualties, environmental devastation and material damage. In contrast, terrorist groups must remain in the shadows, and this helps in understanding why their violence receives far more attention in the media, creates greater fascination and horror, than state terror – despite the far greater numerical disproportion and devastation the latter causes in relation to terror groups. Further, we identify with the victims: “It could have been someone I care for - or me!” Stereotypes conjured by “terrorist” range from unkempt, wild-eyed beings, to those of a cold, compressed, cruelty: farewell videos (often recorded by Islamic “martyrs”) show us seemingly calm and composed young men and women. Stereotypes and abusive labels, apart from giving vent to our feelings of anger and abhorrence, are of great political advantage, since they appear to justify state action and terror. Abusive labels close off thought, discourage attempts to address individual psychology and broader factors. They produce an emotional reaction to effect, and not a rational attempt to probe for and understand the root causes of terror.                                                 


Among the uniformed soldiers of the Tamil Tigers are the elite Black Tigers, individuals who have volunteered to undertake suicide missions. Until then, they live, work and fight alongside the other soldiers, their identity known only to a very few. Tiger cadres carry a cyanide capsule against capture and torture; female Tigers are said to carry two - in case the first fails - additionally fearing rape. (The last is used in certain countries as a humiliating, fear-instilling, weapon of war.) Suicide attacks are of two kinds, either immediate self-destruction or participation in an attack where there is almost no chance of returning.

This documentary study helps in piecing together something of the experience that leads individuals not only to join the armed struggle but to become Black Tigers. It is impossible for civilians to separate and save themselves from war waged by the state (Antonia). Her husband was killed in a random bombing-raid by the government. Should she go to work in order to feed her children or stay at home and, though ultimately futile, try to protect them from the (Sinhalese) soldiers? She and the other mothers had had dreams, albeit very modest ones, for their children. The latter, in areas occupied by government soldiers, are reluctant to go to school. Girls as young as ten are afraid of being bullied and humiliated; anxious about sexual harassment, and worse. Dharshika, who gave up schooling at 13, says that some tolerate this state of affairs; others join the Tigers to fight back. One of the most powerful aspects of the documentary is the depiction of the devastation that state power wreaks: bombed-out houses and schools, temples and churches, families reduced to living in accommodation as from primitive times, close to destitution, children deprived of their childhood and education. Seeing this, Dharshika struggles to control tears of pity.

She and Puhalchudar admit to having killed several of the enemy, but there is no bravado or posturing. On the contrary, at times, they are bashful, almost shy, like girls and young women from a traditional Asian culture. Recounting a recurring nightmare of being surrounded by government soldiers, they laugh wryly, a “wouldn’t-that-be-funny!” laugh, at the possibility of biting the cyanide capsule in their sleep, mistaking dream for reality. They are young, female, human. Cut off from family and social life, their friendship is close and sustaining. Yet, knowing they will be called up to undertake a suicide mission, perhaps a solitary attack, at the core of their being they are awfully alone. They visit the military cemetery where thousands of Tigers lie, conscious that soon they too will lie there, or somewhere else. Above all, they long for a peace that endures (because it is based on justice), so that the slow process of healing and reconstruction can begin. Antonia is a striking character, exemplifying love and courage; grieved and deeply sorrowing; smiling gently even as she wipes away the tears; quietly getting on with such life as is available to her. The story of Dharshika, Puhalchudar and Antonia is but one from thousands in war-scarred Sri Lanka. The horrific carnage following the Tiger attack on the Central Bank (1996) and other such dreadful scenes present the consequence of missions undertaken by the Black Tigers: the documentary is clear-eyed. To understand cause is not necessarily to exculpate or condone reaction and consequence. Tragedy and a sense of waste are heightened by the folly and unnecessary nature of events. A fortnight after it was filmed, the two friends were called up, and it’s presumed they are now dead. The last scene is of grieving women at a Tiger cemetery, tending the graves, caressing the hard, cold, stone under which the remains of their loved one are buried. Terrorists are thought of in terms of the death and injury they cause and, secondly, of their own death or capture. But those who loved the terrorist are also victims, experiencing sorrow, getting on with a life burdened by deep and permanent loss.

This work is all the more moving for its restraint. The producers do not appear in the film, nor make any comment. War means brutality and death; injury and destruction; tragedy and grief. In the poem ‘Strange Meeting’ by Wilfred Owen (died in action, 1918, at the age of twenty-five), a newly-killed soldier is addressed in the other world by an enemy soldier who speaks about the “pity” of war. (Emphasis in the second line below has been added.)

I would have poured out my spirit without stint
But not through wounds; not on the cess of war.
I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I [recognised] you in this dark: for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were [cold and slow].
Let us sleep now…

The documentary is a powerful indictment of war, of the destruction and tragedy it causes. It is perceptive, deeply moving and thought-provoking. Film is a visual medium, and it would take much space to deal with even one, fleeting, scene. A humane document, My daughter, the terrorist should be seen by those concerned about conflict, the destruction it causes, the waste it produces, and the tragedy it leaves behind.


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