Stringing seven real-life disparate stories on the disappearance of innocent people in Sri Lanka to gether, Chennai-based film maker Leena Manimekalai brings outs the agony and desperation of the missing persons’ loved ones in her latest documentary, White Van Stories, which she feels could be a ‘visual petition’ at world fora where issues relating to human rights violations are taken up against the island nation.
The documentary, which was released in Chennai recently, assumes significance in the backdrop of the intensification of the protests in Sri Lanka with the families and friends of thousands of people who just vanished without a trace, mostly picked up by the eponymous ‘White Van’, refusing to accepting death certificates for the missing but wanting to know their whereabouts.
Narrated by those dear ones, the documentary brings out the fact that such disapperances cut through the religious, linguistic and economic divide. Not just Tamils, even Sinhalese have lost their people as the Sri Lankan government has been intolerant to any form of dissent or protest all along. In the stories that Manimekalai tells us, through mothers, wives, friends and others, the binding thread is the helplessness of the people, who do not know where to go and look for the missing person. And they profess all the main religions of Sri Lanka: Buddhism, Hinduism and Christianity.
The 90-minute documentary, hewn out of a 60-hour footage, shot during two visits Manimekalai and her cameraman made to Sri Lanka, masquerading as Hindi-speaking tourists from India, the documentary has visuals of street protests by people, asking the government where their loved ones are.
It captures the overwhelming fear that grips anyone setting foot on the island nation through the visuals shot at army posts and other sensitive areas and the devastation caused by the long-drawn war. An abandoned white van, charred in a bomb blast and left to rust, is a poignant vignette in the documentary as filming a few children playing on the remains of what was once an ice-cream carrier was also a defining moment for the film maker.
It was then, Manimekalai was picked up for interrogation, along with her camera man, Aravind Mak, and detained for over five hours, when a few top level army officers descended to question them. In fact, it was an innocous scene with no significance to the larger narrative. But, shot at Iranapalay near Mullaivaikal, where there are no houses now, it showcases the devastation caused by the Sinhalese forces in the last phase of the war. That scary incident, however, did not deter Manimekalai from returning to Sri Lanka to continue the filming, meeting more families. Most of the meetings were held underground or rather the two-member crew was under the protective care of the families, whose poignant stories make the documentary.
Among those speaking on camera are women from diverse backgrounds, recalling the desperation they showed when their loved ones went missing. The true stories can be used as advocacy material by those pressing for charges of war crimes against Sri Lanka in UNHRC, wishes the film-maker, for whom this is the twelfth documentary and the second one on the Sri Lankan issue, the earlier one being Sengadal (Red Sea).
If she had to tackle the Sri Lankan army and authorities all through the shoot for White Van Stories, she says she had to tackle some local politicians when she made her first documentary, Mathamma, in 2003 on the ritual among a Dalit community, giving away girls for God.