Jude Ratnam is worried how his film might go down with his fellow Sri Lankan Tamils. And he has a point. Demons in Paradise, which is premiering at the Cannes Film Festival, tells of the bloodbath that drove some Tamils to take up arms in the three decade-long insurgency that tore the island apart.
But the documentary also shatters a taboo by insisting that some of most horrific violence the minority endured was at the hands of their supposed defenders, the Tamil Tigers.
And the “hard truth” comes from the mouths of former Tamil fighters themselves.
If you don’t recognize that madness and just keep saying we were the victims, you are not facing the truth
– Jude Ratnam
“By making this film I know that I will have to face harsh, perhaps even hateful criticism from both communities,” Ratnam said.
“The Sinhalese will claim that I am betraying my country by stirring up the past that is best forgotten. The Tamils will insist that I betrayed our cause by revealing the atrocities committed by the Tamil Tigers.”
Ratnam was five when the anti-Tamil pogroms of Black July began in 1983, sending him and his family fleeing north from the massacres in the capital Colombo.
Tamil grievances and suffering were real, the director insisted.
The problem was “the Tamil liberation movement turned out to be complete madness” with many groups vying for control.
‘Sun God’ leader
As many as 20,000 civilians died as the Tigers – led by Velupillai Prabhakaran, whose supporters venerated him as the “Sun God” –imposed their will through a bloody reign of terror in the Tamil-dominated north.
Ratnam believes another 10,000 disappeared after being tortured or taken to camps.
“If you don’t recognize that madness and just keep saying we were the victims, you are not facing the truth,” he added.
By 1986, less than three years into the civil war, “people were more afraid of the Tigers than the army,” he said. “People were terrified of them… they reigned supreme as the gods of revolutionary justice.”
In the film, witnesses talk of the almost daily public executions of “spies” and “traitors” in the Tigers’ stronghold of Jaffna. Opponents were also “necklaced” with burning car tires.
In one electric scene, Ratnam brings together rival former fighters to talk for the first time around a campfire about what they saw and did.
If the film has a hero, it is his uncle, a former fighter who grew disillusioned with the struggle and risked his life to smuggle civilians out of Jaffna.
He returned from Canada with Ratnam to the family’s ancestral village near Kandy for an emotional reunion with the Sinhalese neighbors who hid him during earlier anti-Tamil violence in 1977.
“He’s a great man,” Ratnam said. “When I was 16 and I saw my people dying I wanted to fight. But he was the first to return and say, ‘This is wrong, it’s messed up. What is going on is madness’.”
Silence is imposed
Ratnam, the son of an Anglican priest, said facing up to the “hard truth of what happened is essential” if Tamils and the majority Sinhalese are to move on.
“Seven years after the end of the war, the victors are celebrated, general amnesia is encouraged and silence is imposed,” he added.
“In a conflict that went on for 30 years nobody is innocent.”
Because of the Tigers’ iron grip, “everybody got sucked into the ideology. The Tigers came to represent the Tamils, so if you are a Tamil you had to be a Tiger.”
Ratnam took a decade to complete the film. Given the new Sri Lankan government’s commitment to freedom of speech, he said he hoped “they will allow the film to be shown.”
“It is not going to be easy. Some of my close friends will be upset by it. It’s a big taboo. I don’t think I will be able to show my face in Tamil diaspora areas abroad (where support for the Tigers is still strong) … nor Tamil Nadu in India.
“I am a Tamil, I don’t deny my identity, but identity also gets us into some lunatic positions that deny the facts or inconvenient truths. ‘Our people can’t be wrong!’ is the attitude.”
Ratnam said he would be “much more comfortable back home” in Sri Lanka where people lived with the war to the bitter end in 2009.
“Fear destroyed the lives of three generations” in Sri Lanka since British colonial rule, Ratnam said, when ethnic differences were used to “divide and rule.”
“My uncle had a gun. I have a camera… I want to avoid a fourth generation being trapped in the snare.”