What Lessons Are We Talking About?

Reconciliation and Memory in Post-Civil War Sri Lankan Cinema

by Dinidu Karunanayake and Thiyagaraja Waradas, ICES Research Papers, Colombo, September 2013


The official end of the war coincides with the beginning of a markedly changed Sri Lankan
cinematic aesthetic. The post-2009 period has seen a boom in ‘patriotic‘ film productions.
Shedding light on Jean-Luc Godard‘s argument in Cinema (2005) that after the main political
events in the twentieth century, film and history are inextricably intertwined, post-civil war
Sri Lankan films engage with history in many ways. They often depict the GOSL‘s political
mechanism which consists of the rehabilitation of the ex-LTTE cadre, development of
former war-torn areas, establishment of a ‘terror-free‘ nation state, and binding of ties
between the two communities. In examining this post-civil war cinematic paradigm, we
focused our attention on the films‘ presentation of ‘lessons learnt‘—the punch-line of the
GOSL‘s reconciliation process. In Overcoming Apartheid: Can Truth Reconcile a Divided Nation?
Gibson hypothesises that truth contributes to reconciliation, in the experience of the South
African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. ―’Truth‘ is conceptualized and
operationalized as the degree of individual acceptance of the collective memory promulgated
by the TRC‖ (2006: 413). In a similar vein, this essay will examine the process of ‘truthtelling‘.
It will also observe the films‘ attempts at ‘memory-programming‘ about the civil war.

The study looks at four films: Gamani (released on 19 August 2011), Maatha (released on 20
January 2012), Selvan (released on 25 November 2011) and Ini Avan (released on 21
December 2012).3 These films are treated not only as cinematic texts but also as cultural
implements with a wide socio-political impact in post-civil war Sri Lanka. Cinematic-textual
analyses and archival surveys are the primary methodologies used. The selection is based on
several reasons. Primarily, these films embody ‘official‘ versions of ‘truth-telling‘, and almost
all of them were obviously state-sponsored from their initial stages to post-production and
screening. They were granted support in terms of props and access to locations (at the
production stage), and publicity (after the release) by ministers and ‘official voices‘, state owned media, news bulletins, and the government press. It can be argued that government
incentives were granted because the films presented state-sanctioned hegemonic views of
history and memory. On the other hand, the films had wide circulation around the
country—a privilege that every Sri Lankan film is not entitled to. In this manner, they had an
opportunity to make a significant impact on the mindset of the general public. Hence, it is a
worthy task to analyse the films‘ stance on war as well as their success (or failure) to advocate
reconciliation between the Sinhalese and Tamil communities. [p.3]…

Afterthoughts: What Missions Accomplished, and ‘Lessons Learnt’? Wither
While America was still suffering from defeat in the Vietnam War, President Reagan, while
making references to ‗the Vietnam Syndrome‘, raised the need for America to bury that
memory, because the United States has ―an inescapable duty to act as tutor and protector of
the free world‖ (Storey 2010: 101). Both he and his successor George Bush emphasised the
need to ―acknowledge and limit the meaning of Vietnam‖ (Storey 2010: 101). Against this
backdrop, a significantly powerful role was played by Hollywood cinema. Thus emerged
hyper-masculine celebrations of Vietnam veterans such as Rambo: First Blood (1982),
Uncommon Valor (1983), Missing In Action (1984), Missing In Action II–The Beginning (1985),
Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985), and Rambo III (1988). More than two decades after the
conclusion of the war, films on the Vietnam conflict continued to be produced. Randall
Wallace‘s 2002 film We Were Soldiers and Werner Herzog‘s Rescue Dawn (2002) are good
examples in this regard. Despite being defeated by Vietcong guerrillas, these films portray
successful and heroic endings which testify to the manliness, courage, valour, perseverance,
patriotism, professionalism, fatherly and marital virtues, and above all, the humanity of
Americans. Thus they are conditioning the memory of the American viewer as well as
memories of Hollywood consumers across the globe. As Storey suggests, such narratives
create a memory of the war, and a desire to win the war retrospectively, that enabled Bush to
say that the Gulf War would not be another Vietnam (Storey 2010: 101).
Even though the GOSL did not lose the war, a similar paradigm is obvious in its handling of
post-civil war popular culture. Having crushed the 1971 insurrection, the then Prime
Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike said that the uprising was a ―movement of some misguided
youth‖ (Jupp 1978: 312). Instead of carefully examining the causes for an emergence of
youth unrest from within the populace, the government took strong military measures to
strengthen itself against such events in the future. The army was expanded to three times its
original size while the defence budget kept getting bigger. Thus the ‘lessons learnt‘ in the
wake of the watershed class conflict in post-colonial Sri Lanka mark the beginning of
militarism and militarisation which were later exercised in full by J.R. Jayewardene during the
second youth insurrection in 1987. Chandrika Bandaranaike and Mahinda Rajapaksa have
extended this militarisation project in relation to the GOSL‘s war with the LTTE. Notably,
both the JVP in the 1980s and the LTTE throughout its lifetime, had taken similar militant
measures, which eventually, turned ―a diver‘s paradise‖ into ―a landmark of gunrunners in a
battle zone of army camps and Tigers,‖ as the narrator of Romesh Gunesekera‘s Reef
suggests (1994: 12).

Against this backdrop, it is worthwhile to observe what lessons we have learnt as a nation,
and how those lessons are being narrated, re-written, interpreted, archived, and canonised.
Very clearly, attempts are being made to construct hegemonic versions of truth and memory,
as in the post-Vietnam War era in the United States. In this process, certain memoires are
sidelined, ignored, understated, and even wilfully erased. The “mainstream‘ films in this
discussion weave a similar dialogue about ‘our‘ side of the war against ‘them‘. They write
history in a way ‘mainstream‘ products of ‘Hollywood‘s Vietnam‘ would do—by demonising
the enemy, ‘belittling‘ his strategies, questioning his legitimacy and the cause he fights for,
understating his bravery, labelling all his military measures as treason, and most notably,
projecting him as a ‘savage‘ ‘other‘ in need of ‘enlightenment.‘ The memory of the war
created in the movies, hence becomes insular as opposed to shared or collective. These films‘
claims to post-war reconciliation are highly questionable. The films only intensify the divide
between the Sinhala and Tamil communities instead of dissolving it.

All violent occurrences in post-colonial Sri Lanka share a common paradigm. The uprisings
have found their nemesis in the State, yet as the phoenix that rises from its own ashes, their
ends have left behind seeds for their regeneration. In the post-civil war era, the ‘victory‘ is
still being celebrated. The so-called lessons learnt make way for regular heavy investment in
the defence budget, and the proliferation of military strength. Such measures are being
commended as indispensable as well as being rendered normative through cinema.
Retrospectively, looking at the lessons of our post-colonial history, we are left with doubts
about the lessons we have (not) learnt about reconciliation and coexistence, despite hypedup claims. Unfortunately, the films in the discussion do not create space for ―the cause of
disagreement [to be] taken away‖ (Tirukkural Chapter 53, line 9) so that the return of ―who
have been friends and have afterwards forsaken him‖ would not be possible. Instead, the
visual rhetoric furthers the course of militarisation while privileging a majoritarian
perspective. The depiction of Sinhala-Buddhist triumphalism echoes the Dhammapada words
stated in the epigraph that victory ―engenders enmity‖ while the defeated ―miserably sleep‖
(Stanza 201). Sri Lankan post-civil war cinema endorses a discourse similar to the ―enabling
discourse‖ of Hollywood‘s Vietnam (Storey 2010: 101). As the films discussed in this paper
demonstrate, the intentions of this discourse are to ‘enable‘ the winning faction to take the
upper hand over the defeated.

The conflict between the Sinhalese and Tamil communities echoes Ashis Nandy‘s question,
―Why is it that the most venomous, brutal killings and atrocities take place when the two
communities involved are not distant strangers, but close to each other culturally and
socially, and when their lives intersect at many points?‖ (2002). The films that emerge in the
post-civil war era need to address Nandy‘s question in order to play an effective role in terms

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