Leena Manimekalai’s ‘White Van Stories’ inspired by voices of those in search of their loved ones

“You would get arrested, get raped or disappear yourself. Don’t do it.” This advice the independent film-maker and poet Leena Manimekalai got from well-wishers was hardly encouraging, when she told them about shooting a documentary in Sri Lanka on the enforced disappearances in the island nation over the past three decades.

That was three months ago.

Now, the documentary’s post-production work is in full swing, and with ‘White Van Stories’ having acquired a reasonably good shape (the writer was among the first to view the work in progress), Leena has a fresh set of challenges at her hand. She is now trying to get across the documentary, shot undercover in parts evading the constant gaze of the military, to a global audience.

“A lot of talk is going on about rehabilitation of the Tamils and justice to the displaced. But I want to show the world that the country is still militarised to such a level that average voices are often muffled. The presence of the military continues to instil fear among residents.”

Sri Lanka has a long history of unexplained disappearances: in the 1980s, during the armed revolt of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, and later as the civil war intensified in the 1990s up to recent years. The victims were Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims and the perpetrators - all parties to the conflict. Often, victims were taken away in a white van, never to be heard of again.

‘White Van Stories’ is not a damning portrayal of any one side over the other. As an emotionally charged relative of a missing person is shown yelling at a rally organised in Jaffna in August this year, “We are neither against the LTTE nor the Sri Lankan Army. The war has been over for four years now. We deserve to find out what happened to our missing relatives.”

Leena says she was inspired to work on the subject of enforced disappearances when she visited Sri Lanka for a literary festival (41st Ilakkiya Santhippu) in July, and stayed back to travel. The stories she heard of people searching for their loved ones, thousands of whom vanished in the last stage of war in 2009, moved her to make the film.

The rally organised in Jaffna last August, close to the visit of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, is the common thread that stitches together the story of seven women from different parts of the country and with different ethnic background: the spectrum of the disappeared loved ones, including a political cartoonist, a former LTTE combatant, a youngster who surrendered to the army in the last stage of the war, a fisherman, and a displaced Muslim resident.

The core of the film is the resilience of the women in the forefront of the movement to find the disappeared and their fight for justice.

Leena hopes to finish the entire production of her documentary by this month-end. “There is a closure in cases of death but not in disappearances,” she says. “The least I hope as an artist is to touch as many lives as I possibly can.”

Further details of the documentary are available on www.whitevanstories.com.

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