Documentary | Following the vanishing van
Leena Manimekalai’s film ‘White Van Stories’ is an anthology of disappearances in Sri Lanka
The history of every armed conflict, civil war, military takeover or separatist struggle contains a chapter on disappearances, whether it’s Kashmir in India or Argentina in South America. Sri Lanka’s saga dates back to the 1980s, as the movement for a Tamil homeland exploded throughout the country, leading to allegations of disappearances in which medium-sized vans played a prominent role—they were used to spirit away activists of all faiths and persuasions. Some of them returned as corpses, others never came back.
Chennai-based film-maker Leena Manimekalai’s new documentary, White Van Stories, revisits this tragic aspect of the Sri Lankan civil war, which ended for all practical purposes in 2009 with the defeat of the main militant group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), but which continues to simmer, on the island, in Tamil Nadu, and at the United Nations. Screenings of the film are scheduled to be held in North America and Europe in the coming months.
White Van Stories gathers first-person accounts of people whose fathers, brothers, sisters and daughters have vanished from the face of the earth. Shooting with a team with hidden cameras, Manimekalai interviewed survivors in refugee camps and at their homes across the country last year. The stories, which merge into one another because of their depressingly familiar sequence of events—a knock on the door by police or army representatives, a long and fruitless search in prisons, false official assurances, the endless waiting, hope against hope—are braided together with footage of public protests by family members, who wave posters carrying photographs of their vanished kin.
The role of the white van in disappearances is a very real threat in the island nation, says Samanth Subramanian, journalist and author of This Divided Island: Stories From the Sri Lankan War, a forthcoming non-fiction book on the conflict and its aftermath. “I don’t know exactly when the white vans began to operate, but I’ve been hearing the term for more than a decade now,” he says. “The white van disappearances have continued after the end of the war; in fact, in my book, I write extensively about a couple of people who have been subject to white van abductions.”
The disappeared do “include Tigers who were captured after the war, or people who were suspected of having aided the Tigers,” he adds. “But they also include Sinhalese journalists, Tamil civilians, human rights workers—basically anybody who seems to pose a threat to the state’s narrative of itself.”
White Van Stories emerged from a trip Manimekalai made to Jaffna in 2013, to attend the 41st edition of the literary conference Ilakkiya Sandhippu. She met writers and human rights activists, and learnt that the disappearances hadn’t stopped after the war. She collected 60 hours of footage, enough for several films.
However, White Van Stories is not just about the disappearances. It is also an anthology of the decades-long experience of living with strife, internal displacement, political instability, fear and penury forced by the loss of an earning member. Victim after victim, nearly all of them women, narrate heart-rending testimonies of despair. A mother writes a letter to her missing child, “My daughter, wherever you are, please open and read this letter.” Another woman displays her missing husband’s carefully preserved personal articles and a half-finished bust of Mahatma Gandhi.
“Every individual who has suffered during the war has thousands of stories to narrate,” Manimekalai observes. “They simply want to share their pain and stories. I found that the exercise of telling their stories to a stranger is therapeutic for them. It is nothing but living a slow death.”
Although Manimekalai is partisan, she takes care to emphasise that the victims are not only Tamil Christians, Muslims and Hindus. She also meets the wife of a Sinhalese dissident cartoonist who never returned, and a Tamil woman whose daughter was forcibly recruited by the LTTE, which also tried unsuccessfully to take her son.
Such relative objectivity over an issue that has divided Tamil Nadu down the middle and has driven Eelam supporters to extreme positions might not win Manimekalai too many fans, but she emphasises the importance of listening to all sides. “Being pro-Tamil is not at all being pro-LTTE,” says the film-maker. She has shown her self-funded documentary only once before in Chennai, though it has been screened at the International Association of Women in Radio and Television in New Delhi and across Commonwealth countries, including the UK. “There were excesses on both sides, the Sri Lankan state and the LTTE,” she says. “Forced recruitment drives and disappearances by armed groups should also be questioned if someone believes in justice.”
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