Ilankai Tamil Sangam

24th Year on the Web

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

Exile and 'Shadow of Silence'

Film review by Charles Sarvan, Sunday Island, Colombo, August 29, 2010

Shaving, he looks at himself in the mirror but not self-admiringly, as young Narcissus did by the pool. Rather, he seems not to look at the mirror but to search deep in it for answers to existential questions: What is this life? Who am I? That the day has no structure for him suggests he’s unemployed. The last scene is of a snow-covered landscape, and the spread-eagled body of the man: a dark figure; white snow, and the red of seeping, spreading, blood. 

 

[I have] watched the smoke that rises from the pipes 
Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows
(T. S. Eliot)     

Many Sri Lankan artists (“artists” in a wider sense) who settle abroad continue to base their work on the Island, and so it was with Pradeepan Raveendran (b. 1981) in his earlier, much-acclaimed,  ‘A mango tree in my front yard’. But ‘Shadows of Silence’, set in France where the producer now lives, has to do with exile. It is remarkable that so much can be contained within a time-frame of, approximately, ten minutes. A restrained, suggestive work, relying on symbolism, capable of different “readings” (the title, ‘Shadows of Silence’, included), it stands comparison with the best of such films.           (See: www.exilimage.com and / or Google.)

The film commences with a desolate winter scene of snow-covered ground, and high-rise flats without any sign of human habitation. Are the adults at work, and the children in school? A few crows, traditional harbingers of misfortune, fly around, cawing jarringly. The film then “cuts” to the celebration of a little girl’s birthday.  A picture is duly taken of father, mother and the three children, but the father seems detached, withdrawn into his own world. The mother looks distracted (worried about the mental and emotional state of her husband?) but tries to present a face appropriate to the party. (One thinks of Virginia Woolf’s novel, ‘Mrs Dalloway’, and foreign Lucrezia, helpless, unable to stop her husband retreating into mental and emotional regions where he can no longer be reached.) The next scene is of the father who has “succeeded” in committing suicide. A mat on the floor is his makeshift bier. He is mourned by his family and aged parents. The children are sad and solemn, uncomprehending and bewildered.

In a time-shift, we see the man about to cut his wrist, but “recalled” to life and duty by his little son “calling” for him. Shaving, he looks at himself in the mirror but not self-admiringly, as young Narcissus did by the pool. Rather, he seems not to look at the mirror but to search deep in it for answers to existential questions: What is this life? Who am I? That the day has no structure for him suggests he’s unemployed. The last scene is of a snow-covered landscape, and the spread-eagled body of the man: a dark figure; white snow, and the red of seeping, spreading, blood.  A mobile-telephone rings in the silence of snow and death. Is it a failed attempt to reach out and connect; to comfort and encourage? Was it his worried wife? Perhaps, she has succeeded in finding employment of a kind, and therefore must be absent? Earlier too, the phone had rung but the man had switched it off, wanting only to be left alone. Much credit goes to the main actor, Krishna Subramania, who suggests strength and isolation and, while being vulnerable, is never pathetic. It is a powerful performance, all the more so for its restraint.

As he dreams (or is it fantasy, a “dream” while not asleep?) that a python is winding itself round his naked body, the man makes sensuous sounds. An interpretation suggests itself: the python kills by strangulation; exile-life is suffocating, and death the much longed for orgasm of release. Repeatedly, the man sees himself dead: in Freudian terms, it’s “wish fulfilment”. Freud, in ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle’, theorised that we are driven by two major instinctual drives: the sexual (associated with life and self-preservation), and its opposite, the death-wish (thanatos), that is, a seeking to return to an earlier state, to the quiet of non-existence. In some individuals and / or in certain circumstances, thanatos triumphs over the drive to live. In Dr Johnson’s ‘The History of Rasselas’ (Chapter 43) it is observed that the worst possible misfortune which can befall a human being is the loss of reason. Depression, as in this film, overcomes reason, erases the victim’s sense of balance, proportion and perspective and, with those gone, her or his sanguinity. Freud drew a distinction between “melancholy” (generalised and vague) and “mourning” or sorrow which is specific: similarly, a “pain” can be located, identified and, often, treated while an “ache” is more difficult to cure or alleviate, being diffused.

Banishment and exile are as old as human history. In the Western tradition, the Trojans, their city captured and sacked, are carried away into exile. At the beginning of the Common Era, Ovid wrote his ‘Sorrows Of An Exile’. In Richard II (Act 1, Sc. iii), Norfolk, sent into exile, laments the loss of his “native English”. (Norfolk feels he is too old to master, and feel comfortable in, a new “tongue”. By depriving him of his language, he has been sentenced to “speechlessness”, which is a form of death.)  Among other events closer in time are the ‘Partition’ of India, the expulsion of Asians from Uganda, and “ethnic cleansing” in the Balkans. Some Sri Lankan Tamils (such as the producer’s parents?), feeling oppressed in the present, despairing of the future at “home”, undertake costly, arduous and hazardous journeys into exile. 

As already mentioned, many writers have dealt with the theme of exile. At random, Salman Rushdie, Caryl Phillips and Edward Said come to mind. It is very much a modern phenomenon and condition. However, Ian Buruma (2001) and others have warned that exile has become “fashionable”: the focus tends to be on writers and intellectuals, and those of the middle-class, rather than on those who do not “make it”, those who eke a difficult, if not despairing, existence on the margins of their new country. These remain, forever, foreigners. To them, to be a stranger and feel strange is everyday and normal. In the film, a broken branch, black on the white snow, lies by the path, severed and  “out of place”.

We are social beings, and to life in society and community, language is normal and expected. A silent person can cause unease. In ‘Julius Caesar’, Cassius makes Caesar uncomfortable because he (Cassius) reads, observes and thinks – three activities which imply silence. Of course, there are many kinds of silence, such as the silence of the dead, which we expect and accept. Silence can also mean harmony: “A friend is someone with whom one can be silent” (L.S.). In a structural dichotomy, silence is the absence of sound, even as darkness is the absence of light, but in drama and film, we depend not on narration but presentation, presentation through action and language, the last being mainly dialogue, that is, speech. So silence in a film draws attention to itself, becomes significant. Paradoxically, the absence (of sound) becomes a presence. 

Shadows reflect mutely; are silent. The silence here seems to signify the sense of utter alienation and loneliness that the central character experiences, despite his family, relations and friends. As the film proceeds, this silence intensifies and becomes almost palpable. ‘Shadows of Silence’ is a silent scream for help from one who is no longer accessible and, therefore, beyond help.  “I was much too far out all my life / And not waving but drowning” (Stevie Smith). That the man has no name makes him anonymous and, at the same time, representative of the many unnoticed, “unsung” casualties of exile - irrespective of time, place and ethnic origin. (Of course, in as much as some living in their own homeland also fall victim to depression, by no means do all exiles succumb to it: others at the birthday party are happy.)

We remember the children. Their home will be France; their attitudes, expectations and experiences different – and, hopefully, so too their lives. The date on the child’s birthday cake is January 2010. The month explains the snow, but also marks the start of a New Year and beginning. Foreign countries, sometimes, kindly gift what “home” unkindly denied.

Only one solace:
there have been
others too,
lingering in that twilight,
who shed
home and country...

(‘Leaving the Country’, Bahadur Tejani)

Charles Ponnuthurai Sarvan
Germany                                                   

(As often, with thanks to Liebetraut Sarvan)