Monday, August 15, 2011

Sengadal the Dead Sea and the Conversations

Brief Version of the Interview given to Post Newspaper at Durban, July 2011

What are some of the human rights violation the fishermen you filmed endured and why were they victims of this abuse?

Almost every household in Dhanushkodi, the border coast has a story of their men shot randomly by the Sri Lankan Navy in the sliver of water between India and Sri Lanka. Fishermen fishing in fear in ignorance of friendly and enemy waters get dumped as rebels, spies and smugglers and unceremoniously beaten to death or shot or maimed.One can see a widow or orphaned children or parents who have lost their son or siblings who have lost their brother in every other family. Unnoticed, the Palk Strait has become the scene of inhuman torture, humiliation and savage murder over the past 30 years since the ethnic crisis had become severe in Srilanka. And in the past six months, the violence has been accelerating — hundreds of  men have been killed. Nearly 600 have lost their lives till now, more than thousands are injured and  have gone missing. And everyday, these figures are raising. And this is not even war.

There were instances where fishermen have been stripped off their clothes and their legs have been heated up with hot rods.They have  been beaten  up using plastic pipes and clubs and they have scars to show us.Horrible physical abuses like making them to sit on ice and looting their fishes have taken place as well.Besides there has been numerous situations where they have been taken into custody and tortured,physically and verbally abused.Tearing their nets and damaging their boats have often been done by the navy. Fishermen in general are socially oppressed and economically downtrodden people and hence these acts are nothing less than strangulating them.Questions do raise in one’s mind about the racist nature of these attacks.

To fishermen, maritime boundaries are man made creations.  Throughout centuries, they have been fishing in all areas, where there is fish.  It is a universal phenomenon.   The Sri Lankan fishermen enter Indian and Maldivian waters. Indian fishermen enter Pakistani waters and Bangladeshis enter Myanmar and the Japanese and Taiwanese trawlers roam around the whole of Asian waters.  The restrictions imposed by the States on cross border movements of the fisher folk have led to loss of human lives and destruction of fishing crafts. 

States are interested in borders, boundaries, bilateral relations and Fishermen are interested in their means of livelihood and thus the issue is conflict of interests and loss and suffering of the powerless. 

Was it easy for these fishermen to relate their stories to you to document and how did you feel hearing of their plight? 

Basically fisher community are very compassionate. They are so humane to levels that they help refugees or rebels or any x , y or z who come to them and thus they invite problems every now and then with the State authorities. It was not difficult for them to love me like one among them. I was one listening ear to all of them but in the process, I felt powerless and helpless when I came across their horror stricken lives.I felt like one awful rat living so sophisticated in the plains. But their ability to live and the courage to set off their boats everyday though there is a 'Do or Die' situation overwhelmed me.I lived with them, and every fisher family at Dhanushkodi is my extended family. Their interviews, personal confessions and memories dug a deep hole in my heart and got etched in my sub conscious. Basis oI had no other go than sharing my experience somehow with the rest of the world. And that is how Dead Sea happened.

You reportedly use your stories for social activism. Has Sengadal led to a change/closure for this specific communities

I will stand with my people whatsoever in their fight for Justice. My documentaries were more a video participatory movement than a piece of video. Dead Sea, for sure will voice their concerns expose how abysmally small their lives are and how every other institutions of Power oppress them. All they ask is their basic rights to live and it is not too much at all. As a fellow being, let us all intervene in our own way to keep the discourse alive until there is some collective action.

What has been the response to the film

Durban will be the world premiere and still there is a long way to go. I thank everyone who stood by me in the fight for freedom of expression. When the film was initially banned in my country, I appealed the appellate authorities and I owe a lot to Indian Media, Film Societies, Writers and Human rights activists who had extended their support by petitions, articles and solidarity screenings. Now the film has legally won the case and been certified a clearance for public exhibition. It is extremely difficult to negotiate with the Market and it seems to have become more brutal than the State in the post global scenario. But I have not stopped trying to release the film and reach the wider audience so that cause sees the light.

Are there any projects you are currently working on 

My next feature will be "Passport" . I am colloborating with the best artistes like Shobasakthi for Screenplay, Sunny Joseph for Cinematography and Sreekar Prasad for Editing.

Passport will  document the arduous and tortuous passage of illegal refugees which force them to travel in material and ideological conditions similar to those of times of slavery. It will be a story of an individual, thrown into the this large world of inequalities and miseries for no fault of his, whose attempts at survival come to a naught having to overcome such insurmountable barriers of countries, armies, nations, gangs, officialdom, and people, yes people who are out on the road like him and who are also in the trials of life. I am pitching the project right now for funding and once things are set, I shall hit the floors.

Is this your first trip to South Africa

I had been on a transit at Johannesburg on my way to Venezuala in 2005. Infact I shopped a lot in the Johannesburg airport than Venezuala. And earlier, my film Goddesses was in the 2008 edition of Tri Continental Film Festival. It was sad that I could not travel that time. Hence this is my first official trip to Durban and am enthusiastically looking forward to it.

Leena Manimekalai, Durban, July 27, 2011