In July, 2013, when activist filmmaker Leena Manimekalai went to Mullaitivu in Sri Lanka, she got a shock. “Every single house and tree was bullet-ridden and bombed,” she says. Leena met activist Jaya Lanka Ratnam, whose son, a militant, had been missing for years. And he is one of the thousands of militants who have disappeared. But there are also innocent Tamils who have also gone missing. The modus operandi was simple: the army or police would arrive, in a white van, and they would identify the people they want to interrogate, put them in the van and take them away. Very few returned.
So, it was no surprise that when Leena wanted to make a feature documentary on these disappearances, she called it ‘White Van stories’. After meeting nearly 500 families, she focused on seven women who are constantly challenging the authorities to provide information about their loved ones. “All of them are willing to accept the fact that their men may have died, provided the bodies are returned to them,” she says. “Otherwise, they are unable to have a closure.”
Every family has suffered. Leena met a woman militant who lost her legs and half her face during the war between the Sri Lankan Army and the Liberation of Tamil Tigers Eelam in 2008-9. “Most ex-militants you meet has some bodily damage,” she says. “And every family has lost a family member either though death or disappearances.”
After the conclusion of the war, mass graves have been unearthed in Mannar and Vanni. “The Sri Lankan government keeps telling the world that they were killing terrorists,” says Leena. “But to deal with terrorists, you did not need to kill 1.5 lakh Tamils.” That is the figure the people in Sri Lanka as well as the Bishop of Mannar, Rayappu Joseph, have given Leena. However, the official figure, according to the United Nations, is 40,000.
Former President Mahinda Rajapaksha said that during a war civilian deaths can happen. “But I believe that ethnic cleansing took place,” says Leena. “And I regard Rajapaksha as a war criminal. I also don’t think the new government [under President Maithripala Sirisena] will solve the Tamil issue. Because ultra Sinhalese nationalism is feeding the nation’s politics. The Buddhist monks want the land to be Buddhist. Religious fanaticism and nationalism can drug the people. ”
But not all of them. During her time in Sri Lanka, Leena stayed with several Sinhalese families. “They have fed and protected me,” she says. “I have met a lot of Sinhalese who are ashamed about what is happening. They want all the ethnic groups to come together and stay united.”
Incidentally, Leena had to do the shooting of her film undercover. In north and east Lanka, she had to cross checkposts every half a kilometre. “The entire area has been militarised,” she says. “The Army is everywhere.” Once when she was shooting inside a bombed-out ice-cream van she was spotted by a few soldiers. Leena was taken to a detention centre and interrogated for hours. “I felt scared,” she says. “But they refrained from using violence because I had an Indian passport.”
Leena has also made films on gender, caste, poetry, art therapy, the environment, indigenous tribes, and students politics.
Thanks to her work, the Chennai-based Leena has developed a reputation as a gutsy filmmaker. Recently, she had come to Kochi to inaugurate the PJ Antony Memorial Foundation Street Play festival.
On the personal front, Leena came out as a bisexual in her second poetry collection, ‘Ulagin Azhagiya Muthal Penn’ (The First Beautiful Woman of the World). “There was huge censorship for that,” she says. “The Hindu People’s Party wanted to burn the book. They went and filed a case in a police station. There was legal action against me. Ultra-left and ultra-right people came together and attacked me.”
Her recent poetry collection, ‘Antharakanni’, is about queer sexuality. “I wrote about Tamil folklore from the perspective of a queer,” she says. “But in India, people are not ready to accept lesbians and gays. Misogyny is common in every society. A misogynist is also homo and transgender-phobic.”
Despite the denunciations, her book has a good readership, especially among the women. “But there is a fear among them to express their support in public,” she says. “So they write secretly to me expressing their support. They are so thankful that somebody is giving an expression to their feelings. In India, our sexuality is suppressed because of social conditioning.”
But Leena overcame this conditioning when she began travelling abroad. In 2004, she went to attend the Women in the Director’s Chair International Film and Video Festival at Chicago. “The festival director was a queer,” she says. “And there was a queer night. I saw dykes all round. And I realised it is all about pushing the boundaries.”
Today, Leena is committed to pushing the boundaries in her professional and personal life.