New film tells story of Sri Lankan journalists forced into exile

“I believe a journalist can change the world,” says exiled Sri Lankan journalist Sonali Samarasinghe, “if not why are we here then”. Sonali is one of three exiled journalists, from the minority Tamil and majority Sinhalese communities, whose stories are told in a new Norwegian film, Silenced Voices, by Beate Arnestad previewed last night at the Fritt Ord Foundation in Oslo.

All three paid an enormous price for that faith in the power of a journalist. Sonali is the widow of murdered Sinhalese journalist Lasantha Wickrametunga, who is famous for having penned his own obituary just before he was killed in January 2009 at the height of his country’s civil war. She’s shown in the film, alone in a tiny bedsit in New York, starting a news website, persevering in her profession, trying to interview a top army general over allegations of war crimes who’s now posted to the Sri Lankan mission to the UN. The scenes of the man dodging and fobbing her off will be familiar to any reporter, but this is very personal to Sonali since she still wants answers about who killed her husband in broad daylight in the capital. They’d only just got married and she could easily have been sitting next to him when he was killed.

Bashana is a Sinhalese journalist living in Germany, responsible for exposing war crimes committed by Sri Lankan soldiers from his own majority community. His organisation, Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka, obtained the horrific video broadcast by Channel 4 of naked, bound prisoners being executed by men wearing Sri Lankan army uniforms. While waiting for his asylum application to be processed, Bashana and his wife lose their home and are shown rolling out sleeping bags on the floor of a human rights office where they’re allowed to sleep at night. Some of the saddest scenes in the one hour film are of Bashana’s wife, Sharmila, who pours all her feelings of loneliness and sadness into beautiful but desolate photographs of frozen ice and empty winter landscapes. She says how much she just wants to go home.

Bashana’s extraordinary friendship with a Tamil journalist who worked for the pro-rebel news site, Tamilnet, is central to the film. They didn’t meet in Sri Lanka, but from exile Bashana helped Lokeesan apply for scholarships abroad, translating all the necessary documents. There are tense scenes when the film maker, Beate Arnestad, visits Lokeesan in southern India only to find out that Indian intelligence are watching her and she may have put Lokeesan at risk. He quickly goes into hiding elsewhere and she takes the next flight out. Months later Lokeesan escapes and finally meets the Sinhalese man who had helped him. Lokeesan told me he had never spoken to a Sinhalese civilian all his life, because he’d grown up in rebel territory in northern Sri Lanka and the only Sinhalese around were staring down the barrel of a gun at him.

Lokeesan and Bashana sit together in exile watching appalling footage that Lokeesan shot from inside the war zone in 2009, as hundreds of thousands of civilians were shelled and bombed by the advancing army. A young woman’s dead body is sprawled on the ground and by her side a little girl howls, asking why she’s left them all alone to wander the world as orphans.

As Silenced Voices plays out in public for the first time to a packed house in Oslo, Lokeesan cannot control himself as he watches the footage he took of dead bodies and government shell attacks. He’s inconsolable, sobbing with his face hidden in a checked handkerchief, unable to relive the tragedy he saw repeated again and again as a reporter in those dreadful months of war. Quietly Bashana, who’s also teary eyed, puts a hand on his leg in a quiet restrained gesture of human comfort that doesn’t intrude or interrupt the grief spilling out, three years later. Across the ethnic divide, they’ve stretched out the hand of friendship. It’s an example to the Sri Lankans in the audience some of whom come and thank the journalists for their sacrifices.

Silenced Voices is a very powerful film that tells the story of the invisible misery of scores of journalists forced into exile for just thinking they could change the world.

Frances Harrison’s book about the civil war in Sri Lanka Still Counting the Dead will be published by Portobello Books in the summer