By Dayan Jayatilleka –
“By oneself is evil done; by oneself is one defiled. By oneself is evil left undone; by oneself is one made pure…” The Dhammapada
I’m not a Buddhist in terms of affiliation or adherence, but the Buddha is part of my makeup since, as one of humanity’s most evolved minds and greatest philosophers, he sure got a great many important things right. What I’ve quoted above is just one of them.
I also see lots of movies and have done so since I was a kid. My father had family passes to the box seats because he was a film reviewer. Last week I saw the most honest, courageous and important piece of art –and certainly movie– on Sri Lanka done by a Sri Lankan. Directed by Jude Ratnam, it is called “Demons in Paradise” and has already been screened at Cannes. It is about us, all of us.
“Demons in Paradise” is a road movie, but it is unlike most road movies. While it has many roads, it is also a “reverse road movie” if I may coin a phrase, in that it takes the road back to the 1980s. It is a road movie that leads not only to a truth or truths about others or ourselves as a collective, but about the director himself. It ventures into the consciousness of a young man in the Tamil diaspora and the processing of his experience of what and where he’s coming from. He is not the man he was when the movie, and the journey, end. He questions not only us but himself and does so transparently, sharing the answers –and the questions—with his audiences.
At one level, this movie reports from the Conradian heart of darkness of Sri Lanka, evoking “the horror, the horror”, but when the film reaches the heart of darkness we see ourselves, our true selves, the truth of our times and situations—rather like the turn, the surprising inversion of the masterly closing sequence of Kubrick’s ‘2001’ or Tarkovsky’s ‘Solaris’, or at a much lesser level of artistic endeavor, of ‘The Omega Man’ ( “Soylent Green is people!”) and the original ‘Planet of the Apes’ (both with Charlton Heston).
This is cinema from the abyss and back. Ratnam looks into the abyss and more importantly, catches on camera, former participants looking into the abyss. Still more significant, he makes us look into the abyss within us, as individuals, as distinct collectives and as an island society, a country. It upends simplistic narratives which endow communities with a monopoly of virtue and/or victimhood. It burns a hole in zero-sum paradigms that block the truth coming through. This movie, especially if subtitled in Sinhala and Tamil, can be the beginnings of a collective catharsis and can draw us together, begin the healing.
This film takes the lid off fanaticism, violent fundamentalism; of political evil—of the evil that human beings do to each other, including to non-participating innocents, in the name of political, ethnic or ethno religious causes. At its core, the movie confronts the question of right and wrong; of good and bad. It therefore deals with a universal moral theme and has a truly universal significance. The Bible says “know ye the truth and the truth shall set ye free”. Jude Ratnam’s movie not just tells the truth about us, it enables us to see the truth about our communities, our times and ourselves. By searching for the truth, by bringing the truth to light and letting the world see, by telling the truth to the people, Jude Ratnam has become an exceptional man; probably the freest young man I know—a maker of a truly existentialist film. If this movie is seen and understood, then the whole Tamil community can begin to be free.
It is one of the most important movies I have seen and should be screened the world over, because the moral phenomenon it speaks to—the character of violent conflict and the indiscriminate use of that violence; the phenomenon of barbarism—is of truly global significance; a warning about moral boundaries valid anywhere people feel oppressed and fight for freedom. It reports from the Sri Lankan heart of darkness, which is also ‘the dark side of the Force’ of many but not all liberation struggles. If it is shown with suitable subtitling, say in Hebrew and Arabic, in Spanish and Tagalog, it can have a positive ripple effect in the collective consciousness of those societies.
Ratnam goes beyond and beneath the state, tracking the roots of evil even in the anti-state space, ultimately locating them in societies and individuals. It is not merely, or even primarily, the state that is held accountable. It is organized groups of humans and society itself. Ratnam does not ‘statize’ accountability; he socializes it. Accountability is no longer state-centric; it is ‘humano-centric’. Accountability and reconciliation are no longer top-down, formal, institutional and dis-organic; they are bottom-up, informal, social and organic processes. They are no longer unilaterally targeted, they are dialogic. They are no longer externalized (The Other and/or the State), they are internalized. They are not a one-way street, but a two-way, or better still, a multilateral, roundtable conversation. They do not take the form of a Special Court but of a conversation around a campfire.
Based on my experience in Sri Lanka as an observer-participant of serial civil wars, and my experience in countries which have experienced civil wars, I have always felt that authentic accountability and reconciliation can come, not from Geneva resolutions or lacerating top-down, state-driven domestic processes, but through art. This movie proves it, because as we have known from the time of Aristotle’s writing, good dramatic art produces catharsis and catharsis comes only from good dramatic art.
The climactic scene of a conversation around a campfire can do more for accountability and reconciliation than a dozen co-sponsored resolutions of the UN Human Rights Council.