Anomaa: I come from a family where nobody was involved in art. So when I wanted to make a short film, nobody would give me money. I had to wait until the stockpiles of Super-8 expired because they would throw it away and they would give it away for a very small amount.
Anomaa: 1983 was the year the whole landscape changed in Sri Lanka. There were a lot of tensions between different ethnic groups in Sri Lanka, but in ’83 it happened in a big way. There were clashes between Sinhalese and Tamils, and from the southern cities most of the Tamil people were chased away.
I come from a town that was a a multiethnic community. We had Tamils, we had Muslims, we had Sinhalese. But overnight, the whole landscape changed. The ethnic component of all the cities, including the city where I live, changed overnight. People ere killed in the street, people were burned alive. The property that Tamils owned was destroyed. On the same level, the Sinhalese who lived in majority Tamil areas, little by little they were chased from those areas to the south as well.
So in 1984 when I made my first feature, what I tried to explore was the role of a woman who cannot read or write, displaced from her own village, losing her husband, coming to the city and trying to survive without knowing how to read or write. A woman surviving in the capital city, selling newspapers and bottles because that is all she can do, and then falling in a relationship with another man, and then finding her own husband living in a Colombo street because of displacement.
In Sri Lanka then we had two television stations. One was state-owned, one was state-controlled. I was still in school and I had made film in a very sensitive issue. But I was so sure, because we had 2 television channels, that I would get this broadcast.
So I had two options, so I went to the state-owned station and showed my film. They gave me an appointment with a person who had seen the film. The appointment was about 2:30 and then school finished at 2pm. So I came in a school uniform, which I realized was a mistake at the end.
That day, meeting that person, I realized three things. First thing: that gender matters. Then, your age matters. And the third thing: your physical presence matters. I was 5’1”, 18 years old, a schoolgirl. In Sri Lanka, they had only one woman in the film industry, also the wife of the father of Sri Lankan cinema. So basically, the word was why do you, as a schoolgirl, make this kind of film? This is adult content.”
The film was about very extreme conditions a woman is pushed to. But the line I was given was, “Why do you make a film about one woman and two men?” So film was monitored in a way regarding who made the film, not the content. He was not even willing to give me a written verdict. I insisted that he give me a certificate saying whatever he had to say, and the only line he would give me was, “Not suitable for broadcast.” So he gave the film and the letter and told me to go home and make a film about children’s issues.
So I learned my lesson. I approached the other station, I wore some heels, I took another friend with me who gave a little money, and I managed to get it broadcast by the other station. I had two good reviews published in English in the mainstream media. Because of that, the film got a lot of attention. But I got this label as a person from the majority community dealing with displacement. Because that was the first film made about this issue in Sri Lanka.
I told you this story because it is the story of my life during the last 30 years. Most of my work has been banned in Sri Lanka. I’ve made five video features. All were banned in Sri Lanka. All five.
The second one was about a sex worker. Again, we had two options, the state-owned and state-controlled. Again the same man banned the film because it was about a sex worker. “You did a film about one woman and two men, and again you make a film about a prostitute?” that was the question he asked. He didn’t stop there. Before I left the room, he lifted the phone and told them not to screen films banned by this station. So it was a dead end. I didn’t get it broadcast at all.
So then the third one, it was about a middle-class woman’s life – how an arranged marriage and so on. Because I didn’t have much money, so I could shoot something within one day. Friends were supporting me. So I had to look for another content. So what I did was I took the film outside Sri Lanka. It went to Michigan Film Festival, and several places in the United States. What it did was it got me international recognition.
Again I made a film, again about 1983, called Another Mother. It’s about borders, it’s about identity, it’s about mixed marriage. In a multi-ethnic, multicultural society, where you stand on borders.It was banned again. It was banned by the President’s house. It was banned just the day before it was supposed to go on air, thinking it might have an effect on the Presidential elections.
And then the next film I made, it was banned in 1989, and it was banned until 2009. It was about single motherhood. At that point I made a decision to depart from features to go into documentary. It gave me an opportunity to test smaller audiences, taking account of what I was doing, whether I should continue the same way or take a different path.
So from that moment onwards I was making documentaries about displaced people in Sri Lanka. And I was the first Sinhalese from the south allowed into the rebel-controlled areas during the conflict.
Anomaa: I am showing you this because I had a lot of difficulty filming this. I was in an area that was very dangerous, because they [LTTE] were the most dangerous rebels in the world. This is their Martyrs’ Day, and they asked me to come at 5:30 to film this, because the ceremony begins at 6 o’clock in the evening, where the families do the lighting of the lights and the praying at the graves.
But this is at 11am, because during that time, the martyr is a protected image. The families are not allowed to cry.
The tradition was, if one family member dies, then another brother or sister from the family has to follow [i.e. join the LTTE].
I have problems with this film, because it is banned in Sri Lanka. I’m not even supposed to have a copy in Sri Lanka. I had one screening and they told me to pack it off.
In 2008, the 25th anniversary of the beginning of the war, she tried to do another film. The government, which had just ended a ceasefire with the LTTE, banned her entry into the rebel zones, banned her from interviewing others. So she gathered all her black and white photographs from her documentation efforts and did an exhibition about the past 25 years. When the government banned that, she was able to take it to the Alliance Francaise - a makeshift venue, but at least people could see it.
Anomaa: Now I have realized, all this has become audiovisual archive footage of the Sri Lankan war. I have decided to keep documenting. I may not be able to video all the things I’m doing, because documentary filmmaking is not available in Sri Lanka.
I have four and a half years documentation of how the visual artists coped in wartime. I don’t have the money to edit it. But I intend to keep archiving. Because eventually this archive will become the history of Sri Lanka.