May 29, 2005
No More Tears Sister: Anatomy of Hope and Betrayal, 2004
On an unassuming afternoon in September 1989, Dr. Rajani Thiranagama, a 35 year-old physician, medical university professor, and human rights activist, was riding home on her bicycle after having finished grading the final examinations from her Anatomy class when she was gunned down on an anonymous street in her native city of Jaffna by unknown (or at least, publicly undisclosed) assailants. Over fifteen years later, the still-unsolved murder continues to reveal the trauma and underlying senseless tragedy of her assassination on her family - her two young daughters, her estranged husband, her parents, her younger sisters - and especially, her older sister, Nirmala, who blames herself for initiating Rajani into the ethnic struggle that would ultimately claim her life. Virtually inseparable during their privileged, upper middle-class, westernized Christian childhood, Nirmala and Rajani's seemingly disparate ideological trajectories - Nirmala in the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) movement and Rajani in the Marxist movement of the 1970s - would converge towards their homeland's post-colonial struggle for national identity as the Tamil minority (who were perceived to have been favored by the British and subsequently, were systematically marginalized under the government of the newly formed country) and Singhalese majority engaged in a bitter and protracted civil war in Sri Lanka. Nirmala, then a member of the Tamil tigers fighting for an independent state, had repeatedly sought assistance from her sister to secretly treat the wounds of injured guerillas - an act that, from the LTTE's perspective, can be construed as a validation of her allegiance to the organization. However, Rajani's political motivation would not be so easily defined. Championing instead the cause of the silent, innocent victims of the devastating, multi-pronged conflict among nationalists, Tamil separatists, Marxists (People's Liberation Army), government forces, and even Indian peace-keeping forces, Rajani defied the role of partisan revolutionary and instead, focused her energies on creating some semblance of normalcy and rebuilding a future for the people of Jaffra by helping to re-open the region's bomb-damaged university and forming the University Teachers for Human Rights (UTHR) who sought to chronicle the human rights violations perpetrated on the people of Jaffra irrespective of factional responsibility. Even Rajana's husband Dayapala acknowledges his own (then) limited view of the significance of his wife's activities during this period, commenting to Nirmala that his concept of political activism had been of armed struggle and not humanitarianism, commenting "We didn't consider human rights as politics." However, as Rajana became more outspoken and internationally recognized in her group's efforts to document the atrocities, culminating in the publication of the manuscript, The Broken Palmyra, insurgents began to view her activities as undermining their cause - a perception that is widely believed to have contributed to her death. Through filmmaker Helene Klodawsky's evocatively interwoven composition of nostalgically rendered re-enactments, archival footage, spiritual hymn performances, and dislocated personal interviews, No More Tears Sister: Anatomy of Hope and Betrayal transcends the immediate political specificity of the Tamil conflict in Sri Lanka to create a broader portrait of the human toll of colonialism, civil war, and ethnic conflict that contribute to a population of victims. Contrasting Rajani's ill-fated plight in returning to her native land in order to work towards breaking the cycle of violence with the guilt and demoralized melancholia of her exiled family, what emerges is a tragic, cautionary tale of idealism without action, nationalism without inclusion, and revolution without conscience.