'Demons in Paradise': Film Review | Cannes 2017

Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
Well-intentioned but lacking in specifics.

Jude Ratnam's documentary about the Sri Lankan Civil War premiered in Cannes as a Special Screening.

The civil war in Sri Lanka pitted the army of the majority-Sinhalese state against the separatist Tamil Tigers, with the latter evolving into a radical terrorist organization over the course of the conflict. The war, which lasted over 25 years and finally ended in 2009, is the nominal focus of the documentary Demons in Paradise, directed by Jude Ratnam, reportedly the first local Tamil filmmaker to tackle the subject. Since the helmer tells the story from the inside out — Ratnam was 5 years old when he fled the Sinhalese-dominated south to go to Tamil-controlled territory up north by train — it is perhaps not surprising that the result is more of an associative memory piece than a carefully researched and clearly explained primer on the civil war, though this does make the feature less immediately accessible for audiences without any background knowledge of the conflict. Shown in Cannes as a Special Screening, this highly personal take on a war that hasn’t been covered much internationally should segue to other festivals, especially those focused on nonfiction and human rights.

The origins of the Sri Lankan Civil War are very complex, with its roots going back to the era of British colonial rule, when the Brits put a lot of ethnic Tamils, who are mostly Hindus, in high places in government in southern India and modern-day Sri Lanka, then known as Ceylon. This created resentment among the ethnically Sinhalese, which are in the majority on the island and are mostly Buddhists. A bill was passed in the 1950s that established Sinhala as the only official language of the country, which meant that a lot of government officials of Tamil decent, who did their job in Tamil and English, had to leave their positions because they didn’t speak what was now the country’s only language. This de-facto exclusion of the Tamils from power further drove a wedge between the two communities, with the Tamils finally pleading for a separate nation, Tamil Eelam, in the northern and eastern coastal areas, which finally led to an armed struggle and then a full-fledged civil war.

There is little to no sense of this background and context in the film other than in semi-cryptic pronouncements, in voiceover, such as “like a demon, colonial history haunts the country” — a very true statement but not one that makes sense for an international audience without the necessary background knowledge. Ratnam’s approach seems to be less about an overall view or understanding of the conflict and more about what happened at eye level to himself, his family and his people. Thus, the director films his cute son, speaking Tamil in what one supposes must be the Sinhalese-dominated south, while the filmmaker admits this still makes him “uncomfortable.”

There are several scenes of people changing outfits while they talk about having had to hide who they were. An elderly woman, for example, wipes off her pottu — the red dot worn by Hindu women on their forehead — so she could pass for a non-Tamil. While the idea of such a scene is a good one, visually showing what people went through during the war while they talk about that time, the execution is on the amateurish side and lacks the necessary background information to really make sense of it. Are they part of the director’s family? Where did they live during the war and how long did they have to hide in plain sight? Why did they not leave for the north like Ratnam did, or was this before they fled? Were they fluent enough in Sinhalese to pass as Sinhalese or could they not speak in public?

Though the point of view of the film is necessarily closer to the Tamil side of the story than the Sinhalese one, Ratnam tries to somewhat balance things by including a conversation with a Sinhalese journalist who photographed a naked Tamil man who had been beaten up and would be killed soon after by the Sinhalese. Again, the basic idea behind the scene is a good one, as he talks to the photographer at the spot where the picture was taken years earlier, trying to coax specific memories out of him. “I can tell right from wrong,” the man says, suggesting that he knew killing a Tamil just because he was a Tamil is wrong and offering a rare moment of enlightenment/basic human decency. But the overall impact of the sequence is muted, because the place in the photograph — a bus stop behind a police station — has completely disappeared, making the actual location feel anonymous and even random, and the encounter takes place in the pouring rain, not only giving the entire conversation a let’s-get-this-over-with-quick vibe but also negatively affecting the sound and the image quality.

More successful, if also more traditional in a TV-reportage kind of way, is Ratnam’s decision to follow his uncle, who now lives in Canada, as he goes back to visit the majority Sinhalese village where he grew up. This leads to several locals recognizing him, after some prodding, and talking about what it was like to be neighbors or friends with Tamils before and during the war. Also fascinating is the film’s exploration of the ever-growing internecine struggles of the Tamil Tigers, who became extremely cruel as the conflict dragged on, killing anyone opposing their views. Here, too, though, it is hard to make sense of the details for the uninitiated. The shaky and dark camerawork and the tendency not to identify the people and the locations onscreen also don’t help.

For international audiences, Demons in Paradise will make the resulting traumas and hurt of the years-long bloody conflict visible but will skimp over much of the complexity that caused the struggles between the Sinhalese and the Tamils in Sri Lanka and also amongst the Tamil separatists themselves as they turned from an idealistic separatist group into an unforgiving terrorist organization.

Production companies: Sister Productions, Kriti a Work of Art
Director: Jude Ratnam
Screenplay: Jude Ratnam, Isabelle Marina
Producers: Julie Paratian, Astrig Chandeze-Avakian
Directors of photography: Chinthaka Somakeerthi, Mahinda Abeysinghe
Editor: Jeanne Oberson
Music: Rajkumar Dharshan
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Special Screening)

Sales: Upside Distribution

In Tamil, English, Sinhalese
94 minutes

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