by Elliot Adams
Many broadcasters are using the summer evening slow hours to drop some emotion bait for the September-November documentary award-season. Long-running documentary series are wheeling out their larger set-pieces for this year, as This World did with their excellent ‘The Invasion of Lampedusa’. There have also been suitably emotional and shocking standalone efforts, like Terry Pratchett ‘s insightful video essay on assisted suicide, Choosing to Die, or More4′s The Pipe. But the most controversial so far has been Channel4′s documentary Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields, which I finally managed to catch a last night and is still available internationally online.
It contains some of the most shocking images ever broadcast on Channel4 we are told in a trite and hackneyed introduction from Jon Snow, very much in the style of Sheriff John Bunnell from World’s Wildest Police Videos - which is appropriate because the show that follows is very much Jon Snow’s Most Shocking Genocides by any other name.
They allowed the narrative of the documentary to be shaped by what un-aired clips they had and made no mention of events that they didn’t have new shocking gory footage of, for instance little was said of the concentration camps that hundreds of thousands of Tamil civilians were forced into – these are termed ‘welfare villages‘ by the Sri Lankan government, a chilling amelioration that belies the horrifying truth that sexual abuse, torture and starvation is endemic in these camps and at one point thousands were dying in the largest camp every week.
Civilians trapped between their own soldiers and the Sri Lankan army who were bent on state-sanctioned genocide
Interview questions also never really go beyond the obvious, often merely reiterating what has already been said or was explicitly shown in video footage. At its best, the narration of the new footage points out the disparity between the State’s account of events and what is being shown – particularly when showing that key LTTE figures were summarily executed after their surrender was accepted (and in one case sexually assaulted, probably raped) rather than Killed In Action as claimed. At its worst, it is sensationalising and exploitative – building up the emotional impact of the images, providing callous atrocity as a form of entertainment. But perhaps this was to be expected, this is after all the broadcaster that gave us the exploitative modern-day freak-show of its Bodyshock series, trailers for which stopped just short of calling out ‘Roll up! Roll up! ladies and gents, with terror and revulsion feast your eyes upon The Girl With an Arsehole on Her Face!’
Issues of sensitivity and its limited depth aside, Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields gives a compelling and seemingly accurate account of the unlawful behaviour of military forces in the northern theatre of the latest civil war.
We’re shown targeted shelling by Sri Lankan forces of crowded hospitals(to such a degree that doctors requested the Red Cross to stop sharing hospitals’ GPS locations with the Sri Lankan government) within civilian camps in areas the government had laughably designated ‘no-fire zones’. We see a sustained and targeted campaign of extermination against the civilians who had fled to the no-fire zone, and then once the government designated a new one on the east coast we are shown how the armed forces cut the zone in two with a sustained artillery barrage so they could arrest those who fled east and herd them into internment camps . Tamil civilians found themselves trapped between their own soldiers (who weren’t willing to let their human shield leave) and the Sri Lankan army who were apparently bent on state-sanctioned genocide.
All journalists, NGOs, international observers and most UN staff had been expelled from the region before the government’s offensive. Consequently the majority of the footage used for the documentary was from shot by civilian amateurs and by victims themselves. The story their footage tells bears witness to crimes against humanity committed by both combatant factions, neither showing much concern for the suffering and deaths of those whose lives they were fighting over. But the last portion of ‘Killing Fields, introduced by another Jon-Snow-channelling-John-Bunnell introduction, was made up largely of the trophy videos filmed on the perpetrators’ mobile phones. It is this last third of the documentary that has proved the most controversial.
Clips of dead child soldiers, mutilated Tamil civilians, bound and helpless prisoners being executed and the naked corpses of raped Tamil women being piled on trucks while those throwing the bodies joke about which one has “the best figure.”
A particularly disturbing moment is when one soldier remarks, ”I really want to cut her tits off. If no one was around”, in Sinhalese. Humanity has been lowered in your estimation so much by this point that you find yourself reassured that this implies someone in the Army’s command structure wouldn’t approve of further mutilations.
There is a troubling air of spectacle in the way these images are treated though, through its commentary and the questionable choice to put a cheesy horror film soundtrack behind footage of war crimes – this incidentally, by displacing the atrocities from their callous and everyday context, was every bit as inappropriate a choice as the Benny Hill theme tune would have been. It wasn’t the same atrocity exhibition being put on by those filming these war crimes, it was a more human form of exploitation – using these images purely for their shock value.
To be honest I wasn’t that disturbed by what I saw. I am both a very jaded horror film fan and have never shied away from real-life footage of this nature – to be honest I had already seen much of what was included in Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields circulating on the internet. I’ve seen people killed literally in front of me, and while I was shocked at the time – it hasn’t stayed with me as trauma. So perhaps I am just failing to understand the effect these scenes have had on some viewers, but to me it was the way in which they were broadcast that was troubling and I wasn’t the only one.
Even those who felt the way ‘Killing fields handled events was laudable made comparisons between its later footage and horror film excess. Most eloquent among detractors, who felt the scenes shouldn’t have been broadcast, was Serena Davies writing for The Torygraph;
Watching these films made me retch and I wonder quite what the purpose was of viewers being exposed to such horror. Snow said he believed the films should be made public, but why to the British public? Should untutored members of another nation, one on the other side of the world and with no claims now over its former colony, be the people to bear witness to such grotesque behaviour, watching a sequence of these squalid little films and adding a final violation of the victims’ privacy? Surely they are a matter for the experts, for the international arbiters of justice and human rights. In this instance, TV, with its sensationalising soundtrack and its graphic intimacy, seemed the wrong way to present yet another reminder of man’s capacity for evil.
Another obvious critic is the Sri Lankan government. They have released an official statement registering their concern at the ‘distress’ possibly faked footage may have caused viewers, and trying to portray their cover-up attempts as part of an effort to heal old wounds.
The Sri Lankan government is concerned about the distress the images in the Channel 4 film aired without any guarantee of their authenticity might have caused to the viewers … This is an exercise which is carried out by a small section of international media at the behest of certain parties with vested interests and it caters only to the interests of separatist forces living outside Sri Lanka, the final objective of which is to push Sri Lanka back to war, by way of lacerating the wounds that the country is attempting to heal.
This is almost verbatim their response to the last broadcast of evidence of these war crimes, but both sets of footage have been independently authenticated by the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions. The Sri Lankan government’s seeking to pretend that these events are now just a painful history to be forgotten and healed is not just disingenuous - I think it is a fundamental misapprehension of how social trauma heals, the same one I feel critics like Serena Davies are labouring under.
I’m going to make a few gross simplifications here, so sorry for that.
In the foundational texts of trauma studies, for instance the works of Cathy Caruth, trauma is often identified as a problem of knowing or witnessing. On experiencing a traumatic event, the individual is overwhelmed by the impossibility of ‘being there’ and cannot cope with, or integrate, the emotions and ideas involved with that experience into their own personal narrative. With this gap in their own history, rather than remembering the trauma per se they are compelled to return to it. This is a post-Freudian notion, but should not be confused with the Freudian concept of repressed material returning subconsciously. Trauma here returns literally, the victim is compelled to repeat or re-enact the trauma through flashbacks, nightmares, emotional states or – most tragically – through a physical repetition of the traumatic event. Victims of these traumas often organize their entire lives around repeated patterns of reliving and warding off the influence of these traumatic memories.
Now obviously nations are not people, it is not merely a matter of up-scaling. In dealing with this international trauma, neither Sri Lanka, the Tamil people nor the international community should be thought of in such away. But the central issues remain the same. In national social trauma there is always a problem of witnessing, either through the dissociative effect of trauma, but on a mass-scale, or through other forces(often those who caused the trauma) co-opting the traumatised into a narrative that prevents it from being adequately and accurately integrated into their history. Some peoples have combated this by ‘re-storying’ their narrative, as post-colonial authors like Chinua Achebe have tried to when confronting imperial literature for ownership of their people’s traumatic colonial history.
This traumatic problem of witnessing was pronounced in Sri Lanka. Not only because of the massive personal trauma people were suffering (and in channel 4′s camp footage you can see this; people struck by the sight of their dead loved ones, seemingly unaware of the mortal peril they are in) or because of the expulsion of journalists and other international observers from the region, but also because the world’s media failed in bearing witness to these atrocities.
I would argue that partly they just didn’t know how to tell the story, when they could not fit it into a normal victim/oppressor narrative. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam had many of the accoutrements of modern statehood but are officially considered a terrorist organisation by some states. It was the LTTE that resurrected the use of suicide bombers, and they have been brutal and anti-democratic in dealing with opposition – they were ‘unmournable’ lives in the press.
The UK media seemed to do better than most. Though this is not to their credit, it was entirely due to the protests of the considerable Tamil population in Britain. But even these protests went seriously underreported.
Perhaps the protesters demands were too moderate to attract interest; some were calling for a secular two state solution, but most just wanted international pressure for peace negotiations. But again I believe it was the presence of the Tamil Tiger flag at these protests and the fact that the situation could not be made into an easy victim/oppressor morality tale. A tale like those that are told about Darfur, the Occupied Territories or Syria. This is an attitude that needs to change if we are to ‘heal’ the traumatic breach in Sri Lanka, find justice for victims and prevent the physical return of this trauma.
If the concept of that most tragic repetition of this genocide seems too abstract and shamelessly theoretical, then consider that some of the world’s most brutal regimes have been eagerly seeking president Mahinda Rajapaksa’s advice in deploying “the Sri Lankan solution” in crushing their own insurgencies. Burma’s dictator, Than Shwe, visited president Rajapaksa so he could apply methods used in Sri Lanka against ethnic groups in Burma. Then Thailand’s prime minister made a similar trip, referencing a need to learn lessons to be applied to Southern Thailand’s Muslim insurgency.
As Serena Davies found watching Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields made her “retch”, I feel similarly sickened by the idea of allowing the spread of this technique of applying illegal and merciless scorched-earth tactics against both combatants and civilians without distinction. If we are not proactive in seeking to truly heal the trauma in Sri Lanka, then these killing fields could spawn a legacy of genocides and atrocities committed against some of the world’s most vulnerable communities.
The best chance at justice and halting this process before it starts is for the UN to refer the case to the ICC, but this currently seems unlikely. UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon is still rejecting his own organisation’s report identifying Sri Lankan government complicity in war crimes and the Sri Lankan government has disbanded its token efforts at investigation before completion.
Ban Ki-Moon has suggested that he will only establish an international investigation into these atrocities with the Sri Lankan government’s consent – which is quite frankly a completely bat-shit ridiculous notion – or through a decision from UN member states in the Human Rights Council or UN Security Council. As the chances that the Russians or Chinese – both permanent members of the UN Security Council – will waver in their unquestioning support of Sri Lanka’s impunity are extremely slim, that leaves the option of compelling the UNHRC to action and to do that the press needs to first solve this problem of witnessing. Channel4′s Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields, exploitative or not, is a solid first step.