Vishnu Vasu’s latest film is the 18 minute Untitled: a work which, at a glance, seems to take off from where his Butterfly – a documentary on child soldiers during the Lankan Civil War – rounds up to a close. Untitled is a blending together of three women’s loss and pain, as they confess the breakdown of their lives, families, livelihoods, as well as the grief sustained through the loss of the near and dear – in a word, how perfectly ordinary lives lived in the North were, in the least imaginable way turned to dust over a two decade period – while being clawed and mauled by warmongers of both sides of the divide.
In a recent screening and discussion at the Kandy ICES, Vishnu spoke in detail to a gathering of academics, researchers, students and so on about Butterfly, Untitled, and his chosen role as a film maker recording and reproducing tales of grief and trauma. As an artiste who is multidimensional and with a background in film, theater and music, Vishnu’s current fixation on recording narratives of loss from the subaltern terrain of the war-ravaged has much meaning and value. Vishnu admits that his work is done under much difficulty, with state surveillance being his most interested “audience”, right throughout the 2009-2015 period. All stages of the filming of Butterfly, says Vishnu was monitored by the Ministry of Defense and its proxies, which included suggestions on scene selection and documentation process. Vishnu’s anecdotes on the governmental breath hissing down his neck, indeed, added comic relief to the discussion in question, but also indicates the tragedy which faces the film maker, while endorsing the importance of projects such as the one Vishnu has undertaken.
Untitled is, in many ways, different from Butterfly, though, at a glance, it seems akin to an extension of the former. One felt that in this film Vishnu is more aware of the limitations of the genre he works with, and strives for a compromise – a balance between narratives that open up the most intimate wounds of the heart, and an artistically coherent modulation of the same. Butterfly, in that respect, is more a documentary, with the tabling of voices that have been denied a lobby easily taking over from any artistic preoccupations. As such, one might say that with Untitled Vishnu takes a step in a different direction, and is also in better control of his scope as an artiste. A comparison of the two films is counter-productive, as they represent two different objectives and purposes; and it suffices for it to be noted that of the two, Untitled is closer to Vishnu’s own chosen tag: “a poem in motion pictures”.
Vishnu’s words are not without a cutting edge. He notes with empathy the issues facing the Northern communities, as their lifestyles and livelihoods still remain unsettled 8 years since the termination of the war. Vishnu confirms the criticism against the earlier authorities that very little stability has reached the communities that live in the villages and into the deeper tracts, away from the regions bordering the town of Jaffna. Vishnu, as a film maker, is sensitive to the nuances in the crises arising out of unreturned land (to the peasants after the war) and the inability of the Southern politicians and the non-Northern bureaucrat to understand or touch the local ethos. As an example, the traditional social fabric and the cultural matrix has not been taken into the least account in the so-called rehabilitation of or the vocational development among ex-combatants, states Vishnu. He equally lays emphasis on the total disregard of the psychological implications in the re-socializing process of these young men and women. Vishnu’s attempt, therefore, is to make the grieved speak on his/her behalf: a communication that has been paralyzed or not provided by the heavy-footed agents of rehabilitation.
Vishnu often shoots with a hand-held camera. His budgets are enviable, and his energy seems tireless. Though not exactly Trotskyite, he is “internationalist” in his thinking and in his outlook on life, and as such his claim that he is “NOT Sri Lankan” makes a lot of sense, and gives light to his deeper search for “truth”; both, in and out of the former war zones. Part of this truth-finding mission is to view and identify grief and loss at the most personal of levels: the one dimension that is deselected and rarely tabulated by statistics and tables. Vishnu’s is a personal quest on behalf of the person – the individual – in the name of humanity in its absolute form. Yet, as he ventures on, Vishnu Vasu is bound to be badgered with decisions he will have to make, and choices he will have to justify. At one point Vishnu will have to make decisions tougher than what he has had to make in his career thus far. On such a day we may return to this essay, and pick things up from here.