“They hijack your lives… You are forced to leave behind a home of broken spirits to lament your loss; loved ones who will tirelessly look for you,” said filmmaker Leena Manimekalai explaining forced disappearances during the civil war in Sri Lanka, the subject of her latest documentary, White Van Stories.
The 90-minute film was screened for the first time in Chennai on Sunday and Manimekalai plans to show it during the UN convention in Geneva in March. “White Van Stories is a visual petition of families looking for their loved ones who have disappeared from the time of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) insurgency in the 1980s up to now,” she said. JVP was an armed youth-led rebellion involved in two unsuccessful uprisings against the government.
“White vans are common in Sri Lanka but when they don’t have a name or number board, they are tools of terror sent by the government. Families know they will never see those who are picked up by white vans but continue to fight for them,” Manimekalai said.
Sri Lanka, which has registered and submitted 10,000 cases to the UN, is second only to Iraq in the number of forced disappearances.
Manimekalai and cinematographer Aravind Mak went undercover, took shelter in the homes of the characters in the film and shot using live sound in the northern, eastern and southern provinces under military surveillance. “We stayed in houses of Muslims, Tamils and Sinhalese. They are all victims and this challenges the notion of enmity,” said Manimekalai.
A mass rally held in Jaffna and Colombo on International Day of Victims of Enforced Disappearances in August 2013 is where she met more than 500 families and decided seven women protagonists would tell the story. “I see mothers, wives, daughters and sisters leading this resistance movement because the men have been paralyzed, have disappeared or are dead,” said Manimekalai.
The women narrate the tale of the white vans that drove away with seven lives — two women Tigers, an LTTE cadre who surrendered during the final stages of the war, a JVP leader who ran an underground radio station, a Muslim man who
worked to harmonise Muslim-Tamil relations, a fisherman and political cartoonist Prageeth Eknaligoda.
“When you watch the film you will feel sad but you will also feel the spirit of bravery,” said Manimekalai.
“Disappearances are constant trauma; you don’t have the closure of death.” (The Times of India)