POV: How did you become interested in the subject?
Helene Klodawsky: I’m very interested in subjects that we don’t hear about often in the normal press. So I was very, very interested in ethnic nationalist war from the point of view of women. We’re always hearing about wars between different factions, different ethnic groups, but rarely do we hear about those wars from the point of view of women. And I was interested in Sri Lanka — it’s one of these wars that have gone on forever and nobody understands it. I knew that Sri Lanka was entering a peace process, so I was curious to see how women would be engaged in that peace process.
Once I started looking at the conflict, someone said, if you really want to understand Sri Lanka and ethnic war, you must look at the work of the University Teachers for Human Rights. And I asked, are there any women involved in that? And someone mentioned that Rajani Thiranagama, the woman who founded this organization, was assassinated at the age of 35. For some reason I just knew that this was my subject.
The first time I contacted Rajani’s family I spoke to her sister, who said, “We’ve been waiting for you for fifteen years.”
POV: What is the film about?
Klodawsky: No More Tears Sister is about a young human rights activist from the north of Sri Lanka named Rajani Thiranagama. She was a young, brilliant doctor, university professor, mother, wife and advocate for human rights. And because of her very bold questioning on the nature of violence during wartime she was targeted and she was assassinated at the age of 35. I wanted to find out what happened and why.
In a broader sense the film is also about women and war. It’s about what happens to women in wartime. It’s about women’s lives as victims of war, as mothers during wartime, as militant fighters during wartime. And it’s also about the evolution of one woman from being a militant believer in armed struggle to being a human rights advocate.
POV: Tell us about the process of making this film.
Klodawsky: The film took about three years to make, and I can say that the whole process of making this film was in a large part determined by fear. There was so much fear associated with researching this subject, with filming it. For example, when I went to Sri Lanka, I realized that most people were afraid to speak about Rajani, not because they weren’t inspired by her or they didn’t love her — they did. It’s just that given the political climate that exists — now and then — to speak out about Rajani could mean their own death. And so every step of the way I had to wonder, if I do this, will I put my subjects in danger? So it was a very, very challenging process to make sure that I told the full story of Rajani and, at the same time, to make sure that my subjects were safe.
One man who worked with Rajani told me this story: He said, “the people of Sri Lanka, we have barbed wire around us. It’s not around our houses, it’s around our minds.” And by this he meant that people were unable to speak because of the fear of being targeted by either the army or by militants.
POV: Rajani’s sister Nirmala and husband, Dayapala, figure prominently in the film. What interested you about their stories?
Klodawsky: Rajani’s sister, Nirmala and Rajani’s husband, Dayapala, were two very compelling characters. They were each political leaders in Sri Lanka during the war: Nirmala was a Tamil Tiger sent to jail; Dayapala was a Sinhalese revolutionary, also sent to jail. What I liked about them so much is they were prepared to talk about the war and politics and the death of their loved ones, but they were also prepared to talk about their personal emotions, how love and politics come together, how they had made very serious mistakes in their lives about politics, about betraying others, about violence. And so here were two people who were prepared to open up completely. In fact, they kept on pushing me to say more and more of the truth. They were fed up with lies and deception. And they were determined to tell the whole story of Rajani, even at great risk to themselves.
POV: Where does the title No More Tears Sister come from?
Klodawsky: The title of the film actually comes from a report that Rajani created as a result of her on-the-ground research work on human rights abuses. Rajani realized that so often in war, it’s women who are caught in the crossfire between warring factions, between militants and armies. And I think her title of this report was a way of saying to the women of Sri Lanka, particularly Tamil women, I will tell your story and I will fight on your behalf.
POV: Did anything surprise you during the making of the film?
Klodawsky: The discovery of hundreds of letters written by Rajani to her husband, to her sister and to her children was a wonderful surprise. Rajani was a very poetic, very inspiring writer, and we incorporated her beautiful love letters throughout the film. So while we didn’t have Rajani’s presence in the film, because she was assassinated, we had this very deep voice representing her through her letters. So that was a wonderful surprise. I think another surprise was the discovery of Rajani’s daughter being such a wonderful embodiment of Rajani. So again, even though Rajani was not with us, we felt through her daughter that we could almost feel Rajani. In so many ways, Rajani’s presence was felt through the film because she inspired so many people, she gave people so much courage, her ideas were so inspiring. So that was a wonderful, wonderful surprise throughout the filming process.
POV: Who do you want to see this film?
Klodawsky: I want everyone to see this film, but in particular, I would like people who’ve been touched by war to see the film. In feedback that I’ve received about the film, this is very much the message, that even though this film takes place in Sri Lanka, it makes sense to anyone in Latin America, in the Middle East, in North America who’s ever heard about war or been touched by war. In addition, I’d like people who are interested in human rights to take a look at this film, because I think it gives a very realistic portrait of what it takes to advocate for justice in a war situation or in an ethnic conflict. Rajani’s a very heroic person. And I think even though she died in the end for her beliefs, she still gives a very inspirational and hopeful portrait of where we have to go as a society, as a world in putting an end to violence.