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Review: 'This Land Belongs to the Army'

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'This Land Belongs to the Army’ is a strong documentary about the manner in which the lands in the traditional Tamil homelands of the North-East of the island of Sri Lanka have been appropriated by the government and the military.

Made by Indian journalist and filmmaker Maga Tamizh Prabhagaran, the documentary features first-hand testimony from victims and an exclusive discussion with a Sri Lankan Army soldier about the use of chemical and other bombs to support the logic that the land belongs to the Army and that the Tamils can “live in [the] country” only provided they do not “demand undue things”, to use the words of former military commander Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka,.

Launched in January this year at the UK Houses of Parliament, the documentary has gone on to be broadcast around the world, as well as being selected for the 7th International Documentaries and Short Film Festival of Kerala taking place next month and the Mediteran Film Festival in Bosnia in August. It was also entered into the International Festival of Local Televisions in Slovakia earlier this month.

Taking the long view, the documentary situates events since 2009 in the historic context of post-independence people movement and land colonisation in Sri Lanka. Quotes from Gamini Dissenayake, a minister in the J R Jayawardene government, clearly point to an occupation logic, equating to that of the Israeli military in Palestine.

The focus on the treatment of the LTTE cemeteries was perhaps the most powerful testament to the land grab claim. By presenting video footage of the elaborate cemeteries that existed prior to 2009, followed by images showing how the cemeteries were demolished, and then footage of that same land in 2013/14 by which time it had become a military camp, the documentary visually makes its most powerful case. If a picture is worth a thousand words, the juxtaposition of these images speaks volumes, most clearly demonstrating how land that served as a reminder of Tamil loss and purpose has now been appropriated as a mark of Sinhalese (military) domination. If something similar had been done with the interviewees – perhaps with pictures or stories of their houses contrasted to where they live now or the purpose for which their land has now been used – the claim could only have been further reinforced. That said, the difficulty of obtaining such evidence – most people fleeing for their lives don’t remember to take their photo albums with them – is acknowledged.

Another pivotal image was the signboards at the former war zones that now serve as tourist attractions and victory monuments. That all the signs were in English and Sinhalese – but not Tamil – was telling of the target audience for these sights. The Sinhalese population of the south and the international tourist market are expected to add to the military coffers by their visits, while the local Tamils are denied a place in the revised understanding of these sites. Though no entry price signs were shown, there is no doubt that these are commercial ventures of the Sri Lankan military, along with the shops and canteens that were shown with military personnel behind the counter. That the military is heavily involved in all these commercial enterprises – from transport, to hotels, to eateries – has been well documented by others.

There are however a few issues with the documentary that, if tweaked, could make the documentary more powerful. Firstly the editing could be made smoother. For instance, there is no indication that the focus is switching from the cemeteries to the mass graves, resulting in confusion when skeletons are displayed as to whose these are. Similarly while there is footage early on of soldiers singing in Sinhala, it is not contextualised – is it at the temple festival or elsewhere? At another point, what is the Sinhalese tourist saying – there is no translation to clarify why this matters. And while on the issue of translations, there are some powerful statements made by the interviewees that are sometimes lost in the translation. For instance, towards the end of the documentary, an interviewee talks about running from area to area as the Sri Lankan Army shelled. This is covered in one sentence, losing the depth of the sentiment expressed by the man. Separately, while the juxtaposition of the Buddhist iconography, with the calm, slow music, followed by the night filming from the north right at the start makes a very strong statement, the calm, soothing music is at odds with the message and perhaps more attention could have been paid to more closely matching tone – both musical and voice-over – to the message. 

That said, the documentary is an important contribution to the documenting of the ongoing violence against the Tamil nation in Sri Lanka, particularly providing photographic evidence of militarisation and land grabs. Crucially, it neatly captures the ethos of the Sri Lankan government and it’s occupying military – this lands is the land of the (Sinhalese) Army and the Tamils are the (enemy) other in this otherwise pristine, Buddhist land.

See also: ‘Land grabs part of structural genocide’ - interview with Tamil Nadu journalist Maga Tamizh Prabhagaran (10 Feb 2014)