Witnessing War, Yearning for Peace: Two Documentary Films from Sri Lanka

by Iffat Fatima and Lisa Kois

After more than 20 years of war, in February 2002 the government of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam signed a ceasefire agreement. Barriers to travel, dialogue, and understanding seemed to melt away as physical, mental, and emotional space opened and hope surged. The A9 road - the central road linking the north and south of Sri Lanka, which had been closed to civilian traffic for 12 years - was opened and became the symbol of this hope. Brandeis International Fellows Iffat Fatima and Lisa Kois traveled from north to south along the A9 and other roads, exploring questions of political violence and memory, documenting what they saw, and gathering the stories of those whose lives have been forever altered by war and political violence. They composed their footage into two films.

"LANKA-The Other Side of War and Peace," by Iffat Fatima

In this documentary film, Kashmiri filmmaker and cultural researcher Iffat Fatima travels the A9 highway, collecting the stories and testimonies of people whose lives have been, for decades, disrupted by violence. The film is an exploration of the enormous and tragic consequences of violent conflict, as people recall and bear witness to the loss and displacement that has, in many ways, defined their lives. The film juxtaposes multiple perspectives and narrators, making its viewers witnesses to the suffering and the survival, to the effects of war and the hope for peace, that exist simultaneously in Sri Lanka. Since its completion in May 2005, LANKA-The Other Side of War and Peace has been screened extensively in Sri Lanka and internationally.

"the art of forgetting," by Lisa Kois

A 56-minute documentary Sinhala, Tamil, and English, with subtitles in Sinhala, Tamil, or English (Sri Lanka, 2006).

The independent documentary film, the art of forgetting, uses the power of memory to break through the silence and statistical anonymity that characterizes dominant discourses of war. Filmed in Sri Lanka between 2002 and 2005 during an internationally brokered ceasefire, the art of forgetting is set within the context of the filmmaker's journey from the northern-most tip of Sri Lanka to the southern-most tip. It loosely traces the overlapping histories of armed conflict in Sri Lanka through the stories of ordinary people met along the way.

The art of forgetting is not intended to chronicle, analyze or explain Sri Lanka's recent history. Simply, it serves as a vehicle to carry and convey peoples' stories to a broader audience. It is an invitation to remember... to feel... to reflect... to discuss. It is not an answer. It is a question.

While the art of forgetting is rooted solidly in the experience of Sri Lanka, it speaks to the universal experience of suffering and survival of those who find themselves caught in cycles of political violence and war.

The art of forgetting is available in three languages: English, Sinhala and Tamil. It is being used throughout Sri Lanka by national and community-based organizations as part of peace building efforts. Lisa has recently completed a written facilitation guide to accompany the film and further support its use as a tool to promote dialogue on issues of political violence, memory and accountability. The idea to produce a written guide emerged at the Institute.

A copy of the DVD is available in the office of the Slifka Program in Intercommunal Coexistence.

About the Fellows

Iffat Fatima and Lisa Kois worked as filmmakers on a "pro-peace and anti-war documentary project focusing on the stories of people that give expression to the larger narratives of peace and war. In their application, they wrote that their work "will look at the ways in which those affected by conflict have no choice but to remember, while exploring the ways in which they remember through storytelling, art, symbol and ritual. Both the process of undertaking the journey and the film itself are intended to stimulate dialogue within and between communities that have been separated by geographic, linguistic and ethnic differences, as well as to stimulate dialogue with and between parties to the conflict."

Lisa is a peacebuilding practitioner, human rights lawyer, legal researcher and writer. Iffat is a filmmaker and cultural researcher. During the course of and after the fellowship program, they produced two films based on stories they collected from people in Sri Lanka.

Lisa KoisIffat's film "Lanka: The Other Side of War and Peace" traverses the northern and southern landscape of Sri Lanka. The film, spanning the history of the last three decades of violence in Sri Lanka, juxtaposes the multiple realities of war and peace that simultaneously exist there from the perspective of those who have suffered through this violence and experienced great loss. Since its completion in May 2005, the film has been extensively screened in South Asia including several cities in India, Pakistan, and Bangladash. The film has also been screened in the United States and Ireland.

Iffat FatimaLisa's film "The Art of Forgetting" attempts to shatter the silence and statistical anonymity that characterizes the dominant discourses of war by telling the personal stories of the people whose lives have been altered by war and political violence. Woven into the story of a journey from the northern-most tip of Sri Lanka to the southern-most tip are stories of people met along the way. It is an epic tale of war and peace, embodied in the simple stories of those who have survived to tell. The film is being used by organizations throughout Sri Lanka to stimulate dialogue on issues of past political violence, memory and peace.