While our three-decade-long civil war can feel like something of a distant memory, the effects of that war can still be keenly felt by many to this day – one group who still directly suffers from the impact of the war are those communities who were displaced by the conflict.
In her newest film Villuhalin Idaiye: Palaikuliyin Kathai (Amid the Villus: The story of Palaikuli), award-winning filmmaker, performer, poet, and academic Sumathy Sivamohan tells the story of one such displaced community from the village of Palaikuli, one of four villages in northern Sri Lanka’s Musali South. Ahead of a private screening of the film to be held on Thursday (24), The Morning Brunch chatted with Sumathy on her story Amid the Villus, which is Sivamohan’s first documentary film, and she told us what the process was like, and what it was like making her own documentary for the first time.
The film itself
Amid the Villus’ official synopsis reads: “When the civil war in Sri Lanka ended in 2009, the displaced people of Palaikuli in Musali South (Northern Sri Lanka) returned to their homeland. On return, they faced a fresh set of problems and challenges. Stone posts were driven into their land. Amid the Villus is the story of Palaikuli as the people tell it. It is about place, work, and survival; about being in a place, and understanding history, memory, joy, adversity, and struggle.”
Giving us a little more insight into the challenges Amid the Villus discusses, Sivamohan explained that in the aftermath of the war, when the displaced began returning to their original homes, they faced many challenges resettling, and in the case of Palaikuli as well as other villages and communities, one challenge was that they were resettling in what was popularly seen as forest reserves connected to the Wilpattu National Park, which led to public outcry on clearing forest land, and eventually led the Government to issue gazettes declaring these areas as protected forest reserves, most notably in 2012 and 2017.
“To popular imagination, this land was Wilpattu and the film centres on these gazettes and the people of Palaikuli’s voices about home and the environmental discourse,” Sivamohan said, adding that while there was a lot of debate on the issue from policymakers and environmental lobbyists in the South of Sri Lanka, very few people actually did visit the areas in question and that once environmental lobbyists did visit the areas, there were some who retracted their stance on the area being part of Wilpattu.
Sivamohan explained that she was first introduced to the topic through a personal interest in the resettlement of displaced communities, and the work of the late Prof. S.H. Hasbullah.
One aspect of the issue that fascinated Sivamohan was how people, particularly marginalised people, were seen as kind of “anti-nature” while non-government organisations (NGOs), state forces, and Colombo-centred lobbies were seen as pro-nature. “It didn’t really click with my understanding of state power,” she explained, saying: “I hadn’t gone to the area but was very interested in the discourse. My films and research engage with the ethnic conflict and the war. I have been working with displaced communities for several years and have closely followed the struggles of the Palaikuli community, after their return to their homeland when the war ended in 2009. I worked with the late Prof. Hasbullah, on his research in the region and with displaced Tamils and Muslims. After Prof. Hasbullah’s demise in 2018, I went back to the area, to pick up the threads of a story that lies at the heart of a controversy, a controversy that pits people against the environment. It is a story of a forgotten people; the people of Palaikuli in Musali South, Sri Lanka.”
Making ‘Amid the Villus’
Amid the Villus has been in the making since 2017. Coming in at just under 47 minutes of run-time, Sivamohan explained that she could have made a feature-length documentary, but in the end made the decision to keep it more of a short film to tell the story more impactfully, and said: “I thought of focusing on a particular area and get them to tell the story. Amid the Villus is my investigation of that aspect. It’s not that I know enough, it’s about going and investigating.”
Funding for Amid the Villus came from Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) Sri Lanka with Sivamohan responding to a call for grants made in 2017, which she applied for twice, receiving funding in 2018.
Amid the Villus has had one prior screening in Jaffna at the Jaffna Film Festival, and in April, will also be shown at Film South Asia, the biggest documentary film festival in South Asia which takes place in Kathmandu.
As Amid the Villus is Sivamohan’s first documentary, we asked what the biggest differences were in terms of making the film as opposed to the creative, fiction films that she normally makes. Explaining that he has worked on documentaries before with other filmmakers and also made a feature film on plantations that began as a documentary, she said that the biggest difference between creative films and documentaries is the lack of control you have as a filmmaker because documentaries tell stories of real people and real issues that limit how much control you have until after shooting.
“You do not know what you’re going to get. When you do your research and your pre-production, you have a sense, but it’s still the unknown. With documentaries, you film, and then in the editing process, you’re pulling your hair out. I have so much more material than what is there in the film, and it was very good material, but unfortunately, I had to cut it out, and it makes my heart break, because it’s wonderful stories and interventions,” Sivamohan said.
When asked if she would do another documentary, Sivamohan’s feelings were mixed. “I like it (the end product), but the process is really harrowing. It’s uncontrolled, you have to be thinking on your feet, listening to different voices. It’s exciting but nerve-wracking. I may do more because I like to be challenged also. Fiction films have their different challenges, but with documentaries, there’s sudden impulsiveness and spontaneity. I have just been working with a young filmmaker, Alavudeen Ashfaque, as a consultant on his first feature film – a docu-feature called Face Cover. The film is supported by Film South Asia, and they asked me to act as the local supervisor. It is an exciting venture and I am waiting for the final product expectantly.”
The misconceptions around documentaries in Sri Lanka
There is the conception in Sri Lanka (and other parts of the world) that documentaries are, well, easier and cheaper to make than a creative film, and to this Sivamohan stressed that this conception is false. “Documentaries are not easier. People in Sri Lanka have the wrong concept. It could be cheaper, I agree, but also, not really. I mean, I anyway don’t take all the lights I need and I shoot outside or mostly outside, etc. But you have to spend more time figuring out the art. It’s a very creative process, especially if you’re going with less equipment. I also need to craft things in a way so that what I want happens. You can’t say which is more or less easier, because they’re both very creative processes. Also with documentaries, you’re also working with people who are telling you their stories, which means you have to work hard at giving them a meaningful space to do so.”
Sivamohan did note that in terms of cost, even with creative films you can go shoot a film on your phone, and the boundaries of how to make films are falling apart – as they should be – but this doesn’t mean that making films or one kind of film is easier than another.
“One reason I would baulk at making documentaries before is that I’ve been part of them before and I know that it is nerve-wracking work. I know I can’t craft it or pre-plan it or compose it the way I normally would. I also know the level of research and depth you need to take with documentaries (which many people don’t),” Sivamohan shared, noting: “You have to know your subject and your people very well in terms of what you want to get out of it and to be able to create that space, and you also have to leave it open because you also don’t know what it is. You have to have a large mind and do a lot of thinking.”
“Amid the Villus” will be screened privately on Thursday (24) 6 p.m. at the Joe Abeywickrama Auditorium at the National Film Corporation.
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Telephone: 077 373 5075