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Compelling narratives can bring divided communities closer

Sri Lanka


Kannan Arunasalam is a human rights lawyer and documentary filmmaker who has been working in Sri Lanka since 2004. Here he writes about the subversive potency of storytelling as a way of communicating human conflict to the outside world.

Conflict tends to drive information, and this is particularly so for countries where there have been prolonged conflicts coupled with media restrictions. The Sri Lankan conflict is probably among the most researched and reported contemporary conflicts in the world given its longevity, and perhaps also the interest shown in it by a large number of countries with diaspora populations. The sources of information have largely been news reports, academic research and analysis. But there has been a dearth of narrative journalism and documentary storytelling about the conflict in Sri Lanka.

Recently, the award winning filmmaker Julia Bacha spoke about the “beauty of our narrative wired brains” and how it sometimes takes only a single new narrative to displace our existing biases. “As opposed to facts and research, I believe that stories and storytelling are the best way to expand people’s narratives,” she said in her fascinating TED talk. “We are providing alternative role models. I have seen people challenged, inspired and motivated to take action based on the stories we tell.”

My experience with using narratives to communicate stories of conflict as opposed to data and commentary – for example my ‘i am’ project – has had interesting and encouraging results. People are more willing to listen to someone’s story than a mere statistic. Narratives are more compelling than facts, especially with a country as deeply divided along ethnic and religious lines as Sri Lanka. This was also one of the motivations in making the short films ‘Kerosene’ and ‘Paper’. During the 1990s, the Sri Lankan government’s embargoes on fuel, medicines and food items in the north and east of Sri Lanka reached their peak in an effort to frustrate the operations of the separatist Tamil Tigers or Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelan (LTTE). In the face of scarcity and hardship, the Jaffna residents resorted to increasingly inventive ways of ‘making do’. The portraits in the short films represent narratives of resilience, expression and survival, capturing the stories of the people of Jaffna and their remarkable ingenuity, such as taxi drivers taking the sick to the hospital with no fuel, and a newspaper being published without newsprint. The universality of the underlying utilitarian themes, like the challenge of getting a tank of fuel in your car or simply reading the morning newspapers, and the experiences of Jaffna locals, is intended as a means of extending the understanding of their experiences. Ultimately, I think it helped bring communities closer. I found that resilience was a universal quality with which people could easily empathise, especially when the stories came directly from the survivors.

Working in restrictive media environments can put a considerable strain on your work and also make you question your own position. Self-censorship in Sri Lanka is commonplace, with many journalists simply towing the government line out of fear of recrimination. But that is also the beauty of narrative forms of journalism and communication. They tend to go under the radar, escaping the scrutiny of the government and its supporters, who are more likely to be looking for facts and figures to challenge. That said, efforts at giving a voice to the voiceless in Sri Lanka are likely to face hard-line reactions by nationalistic publications. A recent screening of my films at the Galle Literary Festival was met with a callous response in a national newspaper, saying the films “targeted the government” and labeling me as an anti-government filmmaker. So there will be always be some whose biases are impenetrable by even the most compelling narratives.


‘Paper’ and ‘Kerosene’ have been screened at international film festivals, including the 8th Aljazeera International Documentary Film Festival, and selected for Travelling Film South Asia 2012. ‘Paper’ has been broadcast on Aljazeera English. For more information about the films and the productions see