Jude Ratnam didn’t realize he would be telling his own story. Initially, Ratnam set out to make a film about the Sri Lankan Civil War, using the railway connecting the Sinhalese-dominated south and the Tamil-dominated north as a springboard for his explorations.
“You can’t rationally understand the process of art-making,” Ratnam told Kajal. “But one day, my producer pointed out that my story as a five-year-old traveling on the train would be much more interesting than what we had, and the process continued from there.”
What came of this decade-long process was Demons in Paradise, the first film by a Tamil-Sri Lankan director to premiere at the Festival de Cannes and that examines the war from Ratnam’s eyes.
Ratnam, a Tamil Sri Lankan from Colombo, escaped north by train during the anti-Tamil riots in the 1980s — riots in which police officers and government officials helped mobs target Tamil people.
The civil war between the predominantly Sinhalese government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) ended in 2009, lasting almost 30 years and taking tens of thousands of lives, if not more. As someone who grew up and came of age during the height of the violence, Ratnam wanted to explore a side of the war that few have brought to an international audience: the violence of the LTTE and Tamil militant groups against the Tamil minority community. In the film he follows his uncle, who was part of a Tamil rebel group that was eventually dominated by the LTTE, back to the north. There, they meet with men who recount the horrific violence between Tamils, with nervous laughter breaking up frank descriptions of murder and torture.
In one of the final scenes of the movie, a group of former Tamil militants and rebels from various groups sit around a fire and discuss the cost of their violence on the community. Strikingly, the atrocities committed by the government aren’t mentioned. Many in the Tamil community have criticized Ratnam’s approach, arguing that shifting the focus away from the discrimination and war crimes committed by the government against the Tamil minority is more harmful than helpful.
“It isn’t up to any one person to wave a magic wand and say what is damaging and what is not,” Ratnam counters when asked about these criticisms. Ratnam does not deny that the ethnic tension between Sinhalese people and Tamil people contributed to great suffering, and that the government should be held accountable for crimes committed during the war. That’s just not the story he was driven to tell.
It isn’t up to any one person to wave a magic wand and say what is damaging and what is not
Throughout our conversation, Ratnam continues to come back to the same point — in the face of suffering, of complexity and conflict, all you can do is stay true to your own story and intuition about what others need to hear. He grounds himself in what he refers to as his artistic integrity, in the drive to bring to light something that many try to erase. Thousands of Tamils died at the hands of people who claimed to be representing them, those who were their neighbors and their friends, in many cases. This is a hard thing to ask people to acknowledge and remember. But to Ratnam, that’s the point.
“We must deal with this if we are to move forward,” he says. “During the riots, they told us to wait for Eelam [an independent Tamil state] before we talk about these things. When the war ended, they told us to wait for the international community to prosecute war crimes. It always seems to be ‘too soon.’”
Despite his drive to bring this story to light, Ratnam does not see himself as an activist or political artist. He is wary of those who may use the film to push a political narrative, preferring that viewers interpret the story in their own way. He does not believe that the film should be used as a specific tool for action, but rather as a tool for introspection and remembrance. Influenced by films like Night and Fog, which examines atrocities in Nazi-run concentration camps, and S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine by Cambodian director Rithy Pan, Ratnam believes in the power of memory and examining hard truths.
“People are going to be uncomfortable when they watch it. I want people to watch the movie and then sit with it, contemplate it,” he says.
Demons in Paradise has been shown internationally, but last month, it was banned from the Jaffna Film Festival in the north of Sri Lanka. Ratnam is frustrated that this story hasn’t been heard widely in the place where it is set, but he is hopeful that people will begin to see the value in looking into what happened within the Tamil community.
When asked about moving forward, Ratnam is only sure of one thing — trusting his artistic integrity to tell the next story that needs to be told.