30 September, 2020

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I Have Difficulty With The Word ‘Impartial’ Says Documentary Maker – Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields

“If you are a journalist and you have discovered a hidden truth that you are determined to expose, then by definition you become a campaigner. I have difficulty with the word ‘impartial’. A journalist has an overwhelming duty to be accurate and fair but if you are being neutral in a society that is not equal, you are responsible for helping to maintain that status quo.” says the Documentary-Maker – Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields Callum Macrae.

Callum Macrae

The film-maker Callum Macrae talks with Libby Powell for Chatham House about campaigning journalism and how he plans to follow up his documentary, Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields. We publish below the interview in full.

Your work straddles both campaigning and journalism. Is there ever a clash?

If you are a journalist and you have discovered a hidden truth that you are determined to expose, then by definition you become a campaigner. I have difficulty with the word ‘impartial’. A journalist has an overwhelming duty to be accurate and fair but if you are being neutral in a society that is not equal, you are responsible for helping to maintain that status quo.

Your new film on Sri Lanka is No Fire Zone. Why do you call it a ‘film of record’?

We have tried to create a record of what happened at the end of the war in Sri Lanka. It is not some academic account but actually a huge challenge to the attempts by the Sri Lankan government to deny that this happened. We have to be good storytellers but, at the same time, we also consider it evidence. We have a responsibility to make sure it is not in any way misleading because we hope that this film will play a vital role in leading to a process of justice.

Why was this film not made by a Sri Lankan director?

I don’t think there should be advantages to me being an outsider but I think, in this case, perhaps there are. I don’t really like the idea that we’ve been able to get this story on to a national agenda in a way that the Tamil diaspora hasn’t.

The diaspora knew what was going on and were outside Parliament protesting very loudly about the massacres but people weren’t listening. There is a lesson here for all of us: we should listen more.

The fact that I can make this film and show it to the public is a privilege.

Are there more opportunities now for local media to tell their stories?

The beginning of the war in Iraq was the point when we realized things were changing. When I first went to film there, a few weeks after the invasion, we hired cars with TV written on the side. But within a week everyone was taking the signs off the cars or smearing them in mud. The days when a journalist could walk into a war zone with some kind of immunity had just gone.

Over the next two years, it got to the point where we couldn’t even leave the hotels. So local fixers or journalists now had to do the work and I think there is a generation who are being empowered by that. Although their stories may seem less ‘neat’, or slightly coloured by whatever clan or tribe they are in, they are infinitely more accurate and reflective of the situation and probably amount to better journalism.

Were there challenges in using citizen mobile footage in your Sri Lanka work?

There is a great fear of all this mobile footage. If it’s dramatic enough, you’ll run it, but do so with a great distancing. I think we should have more courage. We no longer have a monopoly over the equipment. People are filming and I think that is enormously exciting. But this new media cannot become a substitute for proper investigative journalism or going to those places to find stories that are not being told.

What is your plan for screening No Fire Zone?

I think we have a duty with our film to make people realize the truth about what happened. For the next two years, the Commonwealth is going to be chaired by Sri Lanka, a government accused of some of the worst war crimes this century. This will be catastrophic for the Commonwealth, and disastrous for human rights and the idea of humanitarian law. There is huge value in using film as part of a process of justice. We will hold targeted screenings for Commonwealth diplomats, policymakers and government figures, but also bigger screenings for the public who ultimately call those governments to account.

Your films expose death on a staggering scale – how do you humanize that?

The most difficult and compelling stories are not of those who have died but of those who are left behind. A mass grave is a shocking thing, but the sight of a grieving parent is very difficult to distance yourself from. The most difficult bits to watch in the Sri Lanka film are not the dead, but the survivors.

Meet Callum Macrae: No Fire Zone: In the Killing Fields of Sri Lanka

An Exclusive Preview Of ‘No Fire Zone: The Killing Fields Of Sri Lanka’

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Latest comments

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    Amazing what the diaspora money can make a person say.

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    OK you directed the film. Who is the porducer?

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    And I thought the recent Rohitha Rajapakse interview was embarrassing. If you look up the definition of a ‘circle jerk’, this interview would probably pop up first :-) Can we get Charu Lata Hogg to chime in with her two cents as well?

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    I wish it were all true!

    Sad all these stories are not true. :(

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    It is the Diasporas duty to finance any investigation in this direction,
    and is a very logical activity as this war is identified as one without-
    witnesses. Human intelligence if respected is bound to bring these
    happening to the surface at some stage, although politically it can be
    swept under the carpet. Time will bring Justice. Really sad.

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      Punchinilame: There are thousands of witnesses in this war.Then the satellite photos,army photos and so many witnesses.Thats why UN must initiate an International Commission to hold an inquiry,the everything will come out.

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    Sri Lankan Government killed lot of at the End….in NoFireZone… its truth not a lie/

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      “Sri Lankan Government killed lot of at the End….in NoFireZone… its truth not a lie”
      American Drones kill innocent civilians including children, in Afghanistan. American Warmongers sell Poison gas ‘Sarin’ to both sides of the Syrian armed Conflict.
      Callum McCrae, please do an ‘Impartial’ Documentary on the Warmongering American Weapons Manufacturers. Thank you

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    The SL government gets PR firms at astronomical costs to the tax payers
    to sanitize its misdemenours. The Tamils remain bludgeoned to silence unable to raise their voices with military might. So what is wrong in Tamils getting expertise to speak for them. What is good for goose must be good for the gander.

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    This man, Callum Macrae, has no credibility whatsoever. And precious little integrity (if any).

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      Why he has no credibility/integrity? If I say you do not have any credibility or integrity – would you accept? You need to provide facts to support your claim.

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        The same kind of ‘facts’ as used in the movie??

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    Callum and his team tried to sneak into Sri Lanka as tourists and were unceremoniously deported. Why this DISHONESTY? What can one expect from an organization that is INHERENTLY DISHONEST? The allegation that Channel 4 is being paid by the LTTE (leftovers) is more credible than their ‘film’.

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    Callum Macrae: “I think we have a duty with our film to make people realize the truth about what happened.”

    There’s no such thing as truth in a vacuum. Selective truth can be as big a falsehood as blatant lies.

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    I thought I saw a tank in one of those no fire zones. The one in which someone shouts “anybody Injured”. Knowing the cynical barbarism of the LTTE I would expect that they got their tanks and guns into the no fire zone and began firing on the government troops. The LTTE knowing the nature of those who were commanding those government troops very correctly anticipated that the government would fire on the civilians causing carnage which is exactly what happened. The LTTE thought that this would lead to an international outcry and a halt to the governments onslaught and this is where they were mistaken. The whole world was tired of the LTTE and its clearly visible fascism and so the whole world remained silent and allowed the government to finish off the LTTE and in the process commit more than enough acts that could be used to twist its arms later on when required. This arm twisting is what is now happening.

    Enjoy.

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      I think you are right.LTTE expected the World or International community or the UN to come and save them.They did not come because of the Indian GOVT.Indian Govt.is against Tamils getting Freedom.They want to keep the Tamils as slaves for ever.So they must have spread LIES to the International community and stopped them.

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        S.Thiagarajah

        “Indian Govt.is against Tamils getting Freedom.They want to keep the Tamils as slaves for ever.”

        By so doing what would India gain?

        Perhaps India is jealous of Sri Lankan Tamils’ achievement in this universe.

        May be that in the future Sri Lankan Tamils could not only concur India but also rest of the universe. Hindians don’t want to be slaves to Sri Lankan Tamils.

        Do you think the Tamils have the potential to become the masters of universe?

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    The narration in this documentary is totally misleading. Especially the footage of the civillians crying out for help. What proof does Macrae has that it was the SLA who were firing around/at the civilians? It easily could have been the LTTE. You can hear blasts and gun shots but how was Macrea able to determine that it was from the SLA camp?

    Macrea you don’t have a problem of being impartial,, YOU are a master of it!

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    The comments from the Sinhala extremists is alarming. Deny, deny, deny, and denigrate everyone who stands against the war crimes that were committed.

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    Soldiers took the footage that were being used.
    Everyone knows what happened to JVP. If they did that to their own kind, it is not difficult to see what they would have done to Tamils.

    These books are being advertised on the main page of CT.
    The Cage
    Still Counting the dead.

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