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 Post subject: ‘The Art of Forgetting’ - Victims of conflict by Lisa Kois
 Post Posted: Sun Jun 25, 2006 11:01 pm 
Tracing landscapes of memory

The A9 highway itself is strewn with memories. How many battles were fought to capture and recapture that road connecting north and south? The recap of the battles and the toll from each of them was perhaps the moment in the film that best reflected the director’s understanding of the conflict. “500 metres captures, 300 killed; 200 metres captured, 64 killed….and then the road was just a road again,”

By Dharisha Bastians
@ The Nation / 25 June 2006


I suffer from short term memory loss. It’s hardly my fault, it’s a national affliction. Leaders of terrorist outfits, staking a claim for a chunk of this country have counted on my peoples’ susceptibility to this disease, timing attacks accordingly, knowing that the memory of it will not last long. Among the unaffected, of course.

So naturally, an invitation to a screening and discussion on the film titled ‘The Art of Forgetting’ intrigued me.

In 55 minutes of succinct cinematography and conversation, American directress of the documentary, Lisa Kois maps out a landscape of memories, journeying from the heart of ethnic strife in Jaffna, down to Dickwella, in the south. Her subjects: victims of conflict.

The stories captured are the ones that never make it to the press. Stories that survived and stories of survivors. Memories that were lost in the political and military significance of one incident or the other.

The Art of Forgetting puts a human face on political events that shapes contemporary Sri Lankan history.

In 1995, some 500,000 people are estimated to have evacuated Jaffna within 24 hours. International humanitarian agencies called it one of the worst incidents of internal displacement of the century. The LTTE ordered the evacuation ahead of the advance of Sri Lankan troops who reclaimed Jaffna a few days later. Their aim – for the Sri Lankan government to “invade and conquer” an empty piece of land.

“Someone had hung a sign on the door of a house evacuated that day. It said – “We have left our aged mother behind. Please look after her,” a medical student featured in the film recalled.

She says a lot of old people were left behind in Jaffna that October day, often all alone, because families were afraid they would die on the road. “Better to die at home than on the road somewhere, they must have thought,” she adds. It took them over a day to walk just one kilometre because of the crowds strugling to leave ahead of the deadline. It was raining hard in Jaffna that day.

Those are parts of the story I didn’t know.

Kois interviewed a woman from Iyakatchchi whose son was taken away from the “movement” for allegedly having connections with government troops.

She said the soldiers would come and ask her for tea and she would make them tea. They would ask for coconut water, and she would give them what she had.

“One day they took him away,” – as for the rest of her story, she simply gestures at her neck matter of factly., signing slaughter. Moments later, she is weeping uncontrollably.

What do I know of Iyakatchchi? That it was one of the closest villages to the Elephant Pass military base, providing fresh water for troops stationed there. It was the wells of Iyakachchi that were poisoned as a precursor to the LTTE’s offensive to recapture the base in 2000. It’s a place I visited less than a year ago, almost six years after the fall of the base. I stood there, looking at the fresh water tanks, imagining the great battle unfolding. How did I not notice that there were – are - people still living there?

Kois’ journey takes her from Jaffna to Colombo and then further down into the deep south. The A9 highway itself is strewn with memories. How many battles were fought to capture and recapture that road connecting north and south? The recap of the battles and the toll from each of them was perhaps the moment in the film that best reflected the director’s understanding of the conflict. “500 metres captures, 300 killed; 200 metres captured, 64 killed….and then the road was just a road again,” the text reads.

Just a road, but will the A9 ever be devoid of ghosts? Ghosts of the fallen, ghosts of homes and ghosts of civilisations. Along that road, Kois found her fill of memories. The mother in Kilinochchi who sacrificed two children to the “cause” forced to give up her daughter because she refused to let her brother go to battle alone. “When he died, she said she never wanted to come back home, because he was not there.” The girl died a few years later.

Still on the A9, in Vavuniya this time, Kois found a lady, who in whispered tones told of the night that two wounded Sri Lanka Army “boys” took shelter in her house. “Two small army boys” she called them, recalling how they refused her offer to let them sleep in the shrine room. “They slept in the kitchen with us. Their bodies were covered with wounds. They still had their guns.

They asked for water, but we didn’t have any. We hadn’t gone to the well that day because of the attacks.” The next morning, the two boys were dead. Her eyes are full of tears, her voice full of emotion.

Dealing with issues down south, Kois also makes vague attempts to highlight the state’s hand in militarisation and conflict, especially with reference to the insurgency of the 1980s. Perhaps a lack of in-depth research or a purposeful attempt to avoid such a ‘confrontation’, so to speak, results in a lack of context in these particular features, especially set against the richness of the part of the film that deals with the ethnic conflict.

One story about the insurgency of the 1980s however was particularly poignant; one about an university student in that period whose lover had been assassinated, allegedly by the JVP. She came upon his body first, she says, being on her way to meet him, and all she could do was run so as not to be the next victim.

Admittedly, there were moments when narratives in the documentary did not ring true.

What it was, perhaps, was intentional vagueness, in an attempt to refrain from laying blame anywhere. But because the director herself tells so little of the story, the narrative is almost unnecessary, memories are pieces of literature in themselves.

The Art of Forgetting is being screened at locations around the country. The screenings are small ones, often followed by discussions where the material is dissected. It is probable that most audiences will classify Kois a peacenik – her film was funded by non-governmental organisations, made with their cooperation and deals with people affected by conflict. Like forgetting, labelling people is something we have gotten good at.

Me – I’m glad she jogged my memory.


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