Leena Manimekalai, film maker, poet, feminist and activist, made headlines last time when she made her feature film, 'Sengadal', which portrayed the dark lives of people who had been affected by the three-decade-long ethnic war in Sri Lanka. The movie might have been stopped by the CBFC initially from reaching the common audience, but Leena toured widely to have Sengadal screened at many film festivals and garnered many laurels for her efforts.
Now the passionate filmmaker has put her soul into making a documentary called 'White Van Stories', which is her guerrilla attempt to trace the three-decade history of enforced disappearances from Sri Lanka, starting from the late 1980s. Leena spoke to DC about the unforgettable days that she spent in Sri Lanka to shoot the film. She opens up about the challenges that an independent filmmaker faces and her immense love for working on projects that have a larger community purpose.
In the last week of July, Leena went to Jaffna to attend the 41st edition of the Tamil Literary Conference (Ilakiya Santhippu), which was a first-of-its-kind event to be conducted in northern Sri Lanka in the last 30 years. Leena decided to stay back in the country for a while to travel the death trail from Mannar to Mullaitheevu, where the last stage of war in 2009 killed millions of Tamils.
"The Sri Lankan Government is into making carpet roads and multi-national investments to 'cover up' its terror activities and the killing of its own people. But how can one hide how the State has militarised the whole of the northern peninsula with checkposts every mile and the sight of one in every five persons you come across physically disabled by war or widowed or orphaned or mentally traumatised. Curses of the families of disappeared people roar higher than the waves in the island. 'How can a human being disappear' is the thought that started haunting me," recounts Leena.
The filmmaker says that civil society groups were tirelessly working to mobilise the families for a street protest in August.
"I joined them to volunteer for the pocket meetings from Mannar to Mullaitheevu to Trincomalee to Colombo. Few of their earlier attempts to show their dissent about the State's impunity were crushed by the state authorities. The Mannar Citizens' Committee's initiatives to build a memorial for the disappeared in Mannar were instantly stopped by the authorities. But this time, they were pinning hopes on UN Human Rights Commissioner Ms. Navi Pillay's visit to the island. I eventually filmed the protests in Colombo and Jaffna, which was very historical in the sense that the mothers and fathers and children braved the military and the authoritarian Sri Lankan government to make the world hear their voice. 'White Van Stories' tracks seven women whose father or brother or husband or friend or beloved involuntarily disappeared," says Leena, about the film that's in the making.
Leena has made 12 films and she has enormous interest in social justice, gender equality, annihilation of caste, environmental and food justice and queer feminism.
"I'm interested in anything which can bring in more peace, love and evenness and mutual respect to this universe. Out of my 12 films, spanning all genres of films, documentary, fiction, poetry and experimental, two of them are about Tamils in Sri Lanka. I see it as a humanitarian crisis more than a nationalist narrative," says Leena.
As an independent filmmaker, Leena has faced plenty of challenges to get her movies to the theatres. But nothing seems to deter her spirits, her passion giving her all the strength that she requires.
Leena has also been crowdsourcing to collect funds for her films. "Beg, borrow, steal for even one or two commissioned works. You may choose to pay your electricity bills. Or get stoned for freelancing with companies and corporations to save up some money for independent work. It is lot of disgrace and humiliation, especially as a coloured woman. But somehow, films choose me and hunt me down. It is a path of self-destruction. It is hard!" she says.
Leena's next feature will be theatrical. Will that also drive a strong message? She says, "I do not know about messages, but it will be a compelling story."
Activism seems to have run in Leena's family. Leena was born in a farmer's family in a village called Maharajapuram, near Madurai. Her father, Prof. Dr Raghupathy, was the first graduate from her family. He was a Tamil professor and made her the first woman professional in the family. Leena's mother is still a passionate farmer.
"My father left us when I was finishing my engineering degree. My mother is a very enterprising personality and a born leader in many ways. My grandfathers and uncles are all from a communist party background and my passion towards social justice stems from my upbringing. I am a left liberal and an independent artist who yearns to write poetry, travel and make some meaningful films," she reveals.
Leena also has a brother, who is a television producer and her niece Aathira is the apple of Leena's eyes. Has Leena found the love of her life? She says, "I have fallen in love many times, but got married to Jerrold to get separated eventually to remain friends for life. My journey of love continues though my whole attachment to the idea of marriage and role-playing has changed so that I would not test and try myself again. I am curious these days about my queer self."
Apart from filmmaking, Leena is an ardent writer. She has four volumes of poetry to her credit. As a youth activist, Leena was more driven towards working in the streets.
She learnt theatre, poetry, performing arts and cinema from the streets. "My journey to arrive at activist cinema is layered. As an angry young woman, I chose poetry because I like the independent spirit and spontaneity. The performing arts soul fed my artist self. Theatre helped me learn community organising and collaborating. I discovered how community participatory cinema uses story telling to bring my people out of their own shells to the public space, not as passive victims, but as active narrators of their own lives. As a visual artist, I draw the connections and am more interested in the utilitarian goals in the community. I do get impatient about the aesthetic quality of the art I produce. But till now, for me truth means no less beauty. Film for me is an expression and not a solution. I am less tolerant of work that has no larger community purpose other than aesthetic pleasure. And I refuse to be shackled to genres," she quips.
The recent spike in the number of crimes against women has shaken the feminist Leena. And the activist believes that feminism has a massive role in changing the outlook of society. "Crimes against women are culturally sanctified in this rotten patriarchal, male chauvinist society. How could one not be a feminist, man or a woman, who is born in this country where female infanticide and child rape are a reality? It is a shame that there is gendercide going on, with the increasing number of cases of violence reported against women and children. Caste, religion, language, family, state, name any institution, they are built on the cross of women. The whole notion of shaming the victim rather than penalising the perpetrator comes from the double standards of morality we practic as a society. We are far behind liberation and feminism will thrive till equality pr vails."
There are multiple hats that Leena wears. How does she identify herself?
"I am a simple soul who is interested in love and deeds. I guess I am a hardcore romantic and keen on the little details in life. My pragmatism is being fearless of consequences and that always puts me in the middle of controversies. I feed on my idealism to continue my art and activism. I am political and will continue to be as it gives some sense to my existence. I am working on my anger and being workaholic as my friends and beloved keep complaining. I get provoked and bring the roof down if something comes in my way of expression. All my fighting against censorship comes from that emotion," she reveals.
When she juggles so many activities that are close to her heart, how does she find time to relax and refurbish herself ? "I just do where and what my heart drives me to. My energy has to be spent.
Else, I will become a thug and a nuisance to many. All I wish is I should not be deprived of very many things to do and experiment," she says.
How does the future look for this pragmatist? What is in store for Leena? "In the next ten years, if I am alive I will write more poetry, make more films, love more people, travel more and may end up farming down he slopes of the Western Ghats following my mother," she concludes.
To know more information about Leena's documentary, visit http://www.whitevanstories.com/