HOUSE OF MY FATHERS – Revisiting civil war in Sri Lanka

HOUSE OF MY FATHERS tells almost the same story as Cuaron’s CHILDREN OF MEN (2006), but it’s set in the universe where shamanism and magic remain in the social high ground. Due to its multi-layered allegorism, it might not be the easiest of journeys, but when puzzled out, it brings sophisticated take on reality of civil war bringing the unruly vice. Having its European premiere at 48th International Film Festival Rotterdam, Suba Sivakumaran’s recent piece fills the gap in Sri Lankan cinema: an immersive arthouse take on matters no one dares to tamper.

Sivakumaran brings a story about two Sri Lankan villages (Singhalese and Tamil), that are torn apart by everlasting conflict. Only birds dare to fly around between the boundaries, because one cannot cross the fence that separates his land, as a threat of being killed floats in the air. There is a curse casted to make it even grimmer. No woman will have a newborn, unless sacrifice is done. Simply due to the fear for the continuity of both villages, they agree on sending one representative respectively for a journey, which according to a prophecy, shall cleanse the damnation. A man who struggles with post-war trauma, a woman who has lost her family in a civil conflict and won’t talk ever since, and a neutral to this conflict doctor dare to become the bearers of the Sri Lankan burden.

In her gruesome pilgrimage of allegories, Sivakumaran takes audience for a short history revision, whilst overcoming a trauma of Sri Lankan civil war herself. It took 26 years of military campaigns to put an end to this bloodbath between government and self-called liberationists of Tamil Tigers, who fought to create an independent Tamil state, Tamil Eelam, in the northeast of the island home to Tamil Muslims. Since post-independence Sri Lanka has been plagued by a poisonous interpretation of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism embodied through racially discriminatory policies and violence that included many pogroms. The mass atrocities committed by the state (serious allegations of genocide and crimes against humanity) have never been prosecuted.

The aftermath of the war that destroyed many households, is what define modern history and identity for its inhabitants. Even though the authorities claim the terrorism had ended, it still remains a vivid memory in Sri Lankan collective identity. Following the end of the war in May 2009, process of reconciliation has formally started, even if the roots of the conflict remain unaddressed and a sustainable peace seems still far off.

Sivakumaran’s film may play a crucial part for this era of healing and peace building.

Journey of three protagonists becomes an intense ride through allegories, that zap the audience with often surprising and painful glimpses of what it means to be stymied by one’s trauma. Sivukumaran is on mission of questioning a matter of film language and its ability to depict violence, and in this case, magical flick gives London based filmmaker a field to experiment. The journey becomes a tale of lurking into the inside of human soul, exposing fears and desires at the same time. What is held in the past it is then verbalised, put in allegorical dimension with plenty of room to read. But one may have a hard time breathing, since camera often sticks to protagonists, focusing on images of trauma mingled with subtle eroticism that reflect one’s hidden nature. What Sivukumaran tries to convey is set within boundaries: both ethnical and timewise. Only after looking back, Sri Lankan will be able to understand their future. That task is a hell of a ride and it might be too early to say, if they are indeed prepared for it, because fate seems to tell the opposite.

HOUSE OF MY FATHERS becomes a compromise between a magical fairy tale with quite complex symbolism and a vivid approach to national’s identity and history. It fills a tiny space in even tinier field of artistic cinema in Sri Lanka, thus it might be a reconciliation price for Sri Lankan. Although we still need to keep our fingers crossed so the film may see the daylight in the land it was meant to be shown in.

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