SAARC Film Festival 2019 – Traumatic graphic & sexual violence in Sri Lankan film

I am not usually in the habit of sharing lengthy posts on social media, not about my personal experiences. But this story needs to be told, at least for me to vent.

I sometimes attend film festivals in Colombo, not as often I would like. I am by no means a cinema critic, nor do I claim to know anything about cinema at all. While I enjoy most genres, I deliberately avoid horror and violent films. And yes I admit, I am one of those women who cry at the movies.

So, I was interested in the #saarcfilmfestival2019 that is currently being held in Colombo. One of the films that I saw at the event Motorcycle girl was both enlightening because it shattered some of the commonly held stereotypes of Pakistan and its society, and also inspiring, especially considering that the film was inspired by a true story of a young women riding a motorcycle across Pakistan.

Yesterday, I watched a Sri Lankan film that was screened at the festival, partly because I remember having heard about it last year, and also because of a friend (a foreigner) wanted to watch “the Sri Lankan films” at the festival and chose this particular film.

My previous experience with Sri Lankan classics, or what is often referred to as “සම්භාව්ය” cinema has not always been pleasant. Often I find the content emotionally heavy, disturbing or depressing. I told my friend that it could be depressing, but I was still up to watch it because I thought I could handle it. In fact it was one of the movies I had anyway planned to watch from the beginning of the SAARC film festival.

Yesterday, as with other feature films that were screened at this event, the Director spoke before the film. Said he won about 17 international awards for it, and he also said that what gives him the most self satisfaction was it being screened at this particular film festival. I am truly happy for him, the ability to showcase work that you are proud of, in your own country, to your own people, should be extremely rewarding.

A few minutes into the film, the husband of the female protagonist was beaten up by a group of men and killed and the screen was filled with bloodied human bodies in a pit, which were later set on fire. Soon after, a woman injured her leg in a quarry, her screaming and the shots that preceded made it amply clear that she had gravely injured her leg, but her bloodied leg had to be shown in graphic detail. Then there were extensive scenes of a cattle slaughterhouse and the main protagonist (cleaning?) the abattoir, day after day… This was followed by (an attempted?) rape scene, and by then I wanted an escape.

A part of me wanted to get up and leave, but in that darkened hall, and being seated quite in front, I hesitated to find my way out to the exit in the middle of the hall. Another part of me also did not want to disturb anyone by walking out in the middle of the screening. But, I told my friend that I would leave the hall if there is an intermission. But that intermission I waited for never came, and the film continued to more graphic violence, each scene that followed, worse than the one before; from kidnapping to rape, and more rape in excruciating graphic, vulgar detail and sounds, and then there were several scenes from the room of the protagonist, who had by this time turned into a prostitute.

I sat through all these, most of the time with my eyes tightly shut, but unable to cut out the sounds from reaching my ears. But finally, unable to bear it anymore I managed to walk out of the hell hole that was the film hall. Outside, I could no longer hold it all in. At the Film Corporation porch I was doubling over crying, loud sobs shaking my whole body. Outside, I waited for my friend.

I know, I may be over-sensitive, I should know that it is only a film, and it is all acting and nothing more, and that the world is a depressing place, and these things do happen. These are some of the things I have been told since then, and I understand all of that. But what I fail to understand is how we Sri Lankans in particular have become so insensitive, hardened and comfortable with violence? Is it the thirty years of bloody war that has made us crave to see blood and violence?

Very often, I prefer to avoid classic, internationally acclaimed, multiple award winning Sri Lankan cinema because they often revolve around the war, or the insurrections, or communal and sexual violence. Are those the only stories we have to tell? Have we become a nation of bloodthirsty monsters, with no sensitivity to positive human emotions? I have watched films with violence before, but the violence I saw in this particular film was unprecedented.

At what point do we say this is too much violence? At what point does our blood thirst get satisfied? How many times do we have to show a woman being raped to prove a point? How much of detail do we have to show? Wasn’t there a time when most of these graphic details were conveyed to the viewer with a subtle indication? At what point do we find something vulgar and base? At what point does the film director get satisfied that he has shown enough to convey what he wants to convey?

I admit, the festival screening list indicated that “Some of the films screened may contain adult content. Parental guidance advised.” But are all adults equally desensitized or capable to tolerate extreme sexual violence and graphic imagery simply because you are an adult?

Today, I question myself. Am I over sensitive? Am I unable to appreciate art? Is something wrong with me? Apparently I was the only person who walked out of that hall during the screening yesterday. Is something wrong with me that I can not tolerate what every other adult seems to be able to do?Can I unsee what I saw? Can I unhear the filth, the screams, the sounds that I heard?

But, most of all, can I go back to be who I was before I saw this film yesterday? I feel violated.

Yes, no one forced me to watch it. But for those of you who organize film festivals, public events, talk shows, I request, please be a little bit more considerate and sensitive next time. If a “work of art” has content that may be deemed violent or disturbing, please have the kindness and consideration to warn the viewers and listeners in advance that some viewers/listeners may find the content disturbing.

Thilini Kahandawaarachchi
Attorney-at-Law and a concerned citizen of Sri Lanka

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