While researching ethnic nationalist wars and their impact on women’s lives, I came across the remarkable story of Tamil human rights activist Rajani Thiranagama. A brilliant anatomist, revolutionary, feminist, and mother of two, Rajani was brutally gunned down in northern Sri Lanka in 1989, at the age of 35.
Her life and murder offered a striking way to look at both state violence and militant reaction through a feminist lens. Even today, an entire movement of human rights advocates and women’s groups in Sri Lanka and the Tamil diaspora considers Rajani a source of its inspiration.
I quickly realized that working in Sri Lanka on themes related to human rights would precipitate a re-examination of how to achieve truth-telling through the documentary form. How would it be possible to tell the story of Rajani when the very people I wanted to include in the film were too frightened to speak on camera?
Background to the Project
Rajani was played by her daughter Sharika in several fictionalized scenes in No More Tears Sister.
As I began the project in the spring of 2003, I understood there might be opposition to the film from many quarters — both Tamil and Sinhalese. It is well known that both the Sri Lankan military and the opposition Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (Tamil Tigers) are guilty of torture, illegal detention, disappearances and extrajudicial executions.
Most experts and activists I spoke to cautioned that even though there was an official peace agreement between the Sinhalese government and the Tamil Tigers, I should be extremely discreet with my inquiries and investigations. On the one hand, I was told, the Sinhalese government would bitterly resent having its brutal treatment of the Tamil minority exposed in the West. But even more worrying was the danger the Tamil Tigers posed. A film on Rajani would be one of the first documentaries produced in the West, and perhaps anywhere, to explore the internal divisions within the Tamil minority. I was warned that the Tamil Tigers, whom some accuse of killing Rajani for her outspoken dissident views, would be very unhappy to learn that such a film was being made.
It was also disturbing to realize that knowledge of the project in the wrong hands might lead the Tigers to critics of the separatist movement — hence putting my contacts and subjects in extreme danger. In addition I learned that dissident Tamils lived in terror, not only in Sri Lanka, but also in Europe and Canada.
Security Impacting Form
It is obvious that even in the best of situations, creating a documentary portrait of someone who died fifteen years ago is no easy task — especially when there are no surviving archives and few photos. But this was only the beginning of the challenges I faced. Those who knew or were influenced by Rajani — her students, patients, women she had nurtured through years of war and fellow activists — were, for the most part, too frightened to be filmed. For example, in Canada I spoke to a woman who knew Rajani intimately from the Jaffna women’s center Rajani set up in the late eighties. Her memories of Rajani were vivid and telling of the lives of women caught between militarized opponents. As much as this woman wanted to speak of Rajani, she could not even agree to an interview filmed in shadow, with her voice altered. The mother of a young child, she had already been punished for “unpatriotic” behavior.
This sense of deep-seated terror silencing Tamils critical of the Tamil Tigers became even more pronounced in Sri Lanka during an intense research period in the autumn of 2003.
Though I had tremendous access, even to human rights activists living underground in the south of the country, my contacts could only go so far. For example, I remember meeting one doctor in Colombo who had studied and trained with Rajani in Jaffna. He had been close to Rajani and admired her greatly. Our meeting was carefully arranged through an intermediary. I understood that it would be too dangerous for him to give me an on-camera interview — even if he remained in shadow. Still, I asked for his help in finding a hospital for establishing shots to contextualize Rajani’s life as a doctor. I explained that neither his name, nor the real purpose of the shoot would be mentioned in any dealings with the hospital. But even this he refused, afraid that should his name be accidentally associated with the finished film, he or his family might be at risk.
How to reflect Rajani’s enormous influence was a burning question throughout the research period. I traveled as a tourist to Tamil Jaffna, where Rajani lived and worked, and managed to meet, through carefully set-up intermediaries, family members and a few former colleagues. But everywhere I went the advice was the same: Anyone willing to be filmed could be put in danger, whether he or she was an intellectual or an “ordinary” person.
Though Jaffna is located in an area controlled by the Sri Lankan government, filming openly in the region is impossible without Tiger approval and tacit authorization. Without such approval, anyone we interviewed would come under suspicion, resulting possibly in subsequent “visits” from the Tigers. The situation is even more problematic in completely Tiger-controlled Tamil areas in the north and east of Sri Lanka; our script would have needed to be fully checked and vetted, and most likely, Tiger escorts would have been assigned throughout the shooting process. Obviously, this was unthinkable.
Hence I soon discovered that not only people, but places too were off limits.
For example — even though Rajani had given her life to the people of Jaffna, and was pivotal in building up the anatomy department at the Uuniversity, no trace of her name was to be found anywhere in the city, be it in the medical school or even on the many anatomical specimens she herself prepared. Many believe that Rajani’s presence as a popular leader has been deliberately erased.
Helene Klodawsky re-created the childhoods of Rajani and her sister Nirmala in several dialogue-free scenes.
Thus, taking shots of the university, Rajani’s family home, or even her grave could arouse intense suspicion. One intellectual put it this way: “We live with barbed wire. Not around our homes, but around our minds.”
As I looked ahead to the shoot, I concluded that there would be very little room for a cinema-direct approach. To get at the truth, we would have to use invention based on careful research.
We made every effort to keep news of the shoot from the Tigers during our month on location, and said only what was absolutely necessary to Sri Lankan government officials. This was a complicated task that would not have been possible without the considerable savvy of our Sri Lankan collaborators. Clearly, our five-member Canadian crew is much indebted to our extraordinary Sri Lankan team.
Objects such as anatomical samples and slide projectors were filmed in a highly stylized fashion to build a sense of Rajani’s passions and person.
In the end, all our locations were faked to closely resemble places Rajani lived and worked. Objects such as anatomical samples and slide projectors were filmed in a highly stylized fashion to build a sense of Rajani’s passions and persona. Excerpts from Rajani’s real letters and reports were “performed” by an actress chosen for her particular accent. In addition, the late Rajani was re-created by her 25-year-old daughter in several dialogue-free, fictionalized mini-scenes. As a documentary filmmaker I did not try to hide this fakery; Rajani’s daughter was also interviewed within the documentary as herself, remembering her parents’ lives [while growing up in Jaffna]. Cinematographer François Dagenais and I worked together to merge the fictionalized and documentary aspects of our filmmaking, choosing to shoot the interviews as if they were drama and the recreations with a documentary feel. When so much had to be hidden, conscious artifice seemed an appropriate response.
One may ask — why did I not make a completely fictionalized film?
Because the truth is so hotly contested in Sri Lanka I knew that I did not want the film to be wholly re-created. I felt that the participation of Rajani’s family, in particular of her sister and husband (both former revolutionaries) was essential. In addition to both being fantastic characters in their own right, one also had to know these characters’ stories to understand Rajani’s evolution, as well as the complex political backdrop to her life. In the end, it was only Rajani’s family and a few highly committed underground activists who were willing to participate in the project.
I remember taking my script — still in process at the time — to script consultant Valerie Beaugrande Champagne. It was just prior to the shoot in the winter of 2004. She helped me realize that Rajani’s life story was a “tragedy” in the classical narrative sense. I then deliberately envisioned, and later elaborated with editor Patricia Tassinari, the film in dramatic chapters. The narration I wrote, spoken by Michael Ondaatje, mirrors this unfolding.
Hence No More Tears Sister is about as far you can get from a cinema-direct documentary. In fact, making the film led me to question how we speak of reality in nonfiction filmmaking, particularly when the characters are in danger. Do we, at times, mistakenly associate truth with the seductive immediacy of cinema-direct images? How do we avoid eliciting responses that serve the status quo and characters’ safety more than honest and critical thought? What visuals do we as filmmakers resort to when circumstances compel us to keep people and places hidden? Can we learn to better appreciate the fraught decisions our film subjects face when choosing between [telling the] truth and security? How can cinematic re-creations, feared and hated by many nonfiction broadcasters and filmmakers alike, be constructed to honor the documentary medium?
As the saying goes, truth is far more complicated than meets the eye.