Demons in Paradise aljazeera - Witness

Demons in Paradise: Memories of Sri Lanka’s Civil War

A Tamil filmmaker living in Sri Lanka reflects upon the experience and impact of three decades of civil war.

Editor’s note: This film is no longer available online.

In 1983, Sri Lanka was torn apart by riots targeting the Tamil minority, sparking a war that lasted almost 30 years and left indelible scars on the country.

Filmmaker Jude Ratnam was five years old when he fled the Sinhalese-dominated south to go to the Tamil strongholds in the north by train. But there was no sanctuary to be found as the Tamil rebellion descended into deadly in-fighting between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, known as the Tamil Tigers, and other factions.

Now, the return of Ratnam’s ex-guerrilla uncle from overseas exile provides the occasion for a reopening of old wounds and an impassioned consideration of what went wrong.

For the first time, a Tamil filmmaker reflects upon the experience and impact of three decades of civil war from the inside.


By Jude Ratnam

I had initially planned to make a film completely based on trains. I wanted to tie the history of the Sri Lankan railways with the history of the conflict and tell the story in a very didactic manner.

But as I progressed, I was drawn by the film to include my family and myself into the story that I was trying to tell. All of this happened in the most unexpected manner.

I never thought I’d film my uncle when he came down for my brother’s wedding.

But when he told me how he had once cut the railways, I decided to take him back to this place and film him. There I came up with the whole idea of changing the clothes, which became a key motif in the film. This too happened quite naturally and there was no planning done to do it in this particular way.

READ MORE: Q&A: Sri Lanka’s civil war through a Tamil lens

When I filmed my uncle for the first time I realised that I needed to dig deeper into the whole question of him becoming a militant, and that’s what led the whole story in the direction of searching for the former Tamil fighters.

It was a tricky thing to do during the time of the previous regime which had just brutally crushed the Tamil rebellion.

So the facade of the train became a good camouflage when authorities asked for the filming scripts to be approved. I would tell the authorities I was making a love story on the train about two lovers who went towards the north from the south.

In order to get the location permits to take the former fighters back to the places where they had been fighting, I’d use the love story, telling the authorities that the lovers met in these locations.

I did constantly worry that the authorities might find out what we were filming. But having an all-Sinhala crew also helped me a great deal in having some protection to go on filming.

READ MORE: The fear inside us: Confronting Sri Lanka’s past

With regard to other characters in the film, other than my own family members, I was quite anxious that they’d pull out at any moment if they changed their minds. But when I think back about it today, I think they themselves wanted to be part of this process and that’s why they took part in it.

It’ll be a mistake to think that it was my convincing alone that brought these people in front of the camera. I guess I was just in the right place, at the right time with the camera.

Right along the process I was only telling myself to be conscious of the fact, never to intimidate the person in front of the camera to align with the notions I had about the conflict. I just wanted to allow them to feel free and act and say things as they occurred to them or as memory would re-emerge.

In this sense I would go one step further and say that it is not you who chooses the film, but rather the film that chooses you to express itself.

In other words, you just become a tool; but of course an active tool that is.

Demons in Paradise follows an ex-guerrilla fighter as he returns to Sri Lanka after the end of a brutal civil war [Screengrab/Al Jazeera]
Demons in Paradise follows an ex-guerrilla fighter as he returns to Sri Lanka after the end of a brutal civil war [Screengrab/Al Jazeera]