“I didn’t make the film,” director Jude Ratnam insisted about his 2017 movie “Demons In Paradise.” “It all came to me, and I had to do it, I didn’t plan it going into it. It just all happened.”
Ratnam’s insistence on renouncing agency demands that we look at “Demons In Paradise” through an atypical lens. He doesn’t like to think that he created the film—he even denies that he is a filmmaker. The titles and connotations of “maker” and “creator” bear too much power; they make the work an object of study, which deeply baffles the storyteller.
The film begins in Ratnam’s voice.
“Demons in Paradise” debuted as a special screening at the 2017 Cannes International Film Festival. It came to Vassar this past week through the Engaged Pluralism Initiative micro-seminar, which led a series of screenings and conversations on wartime violence. It is a nonfiction, emotional account of history and a historical reconciliation of memory. Ratman is one of the very few Tamil filmmakers tackling the sensitive memory of the Sri Lankan Civil War; thus, his film does not lie in any preexisting framework or official account of the conflict. He documents what he sees, and how the war shaped his personal way of seeing and feeling.
He opens the film with his son, Nethran, attending an amusement fair at night. The fairy lights of the carousel and bumper cars flicker off the child’s iris. Nethran yells at his father for permission to ride in Tamil, triggering Ratnam’s discomfort with the past—memories of being marked by his language in public spaces, of how his mother warned him to not speak Tamil in public because it would get him killed.
The camera then brings us to a photograph of a naked Tamilian man beaten up and laughed at on a dark, damp street by a Sinhalese man in “civilized” attire, pointing at him with a smirk on his face. The Tamilian man was killed soon after the photograph was taken. The journalist who took this photo is Sinhalese. When asked if he could have stopped the killing instead of taking the photograph, he replied, “I can tell right from wrong,” but asserted that no act within his power could stop the murder. By taking the photograph, he was able to preserve a piece of evidence, a snapshot of history.
The camera shifts to capture an uncomfortably long shot of an old couple changing in and out of outfits. The old man struggles to put on a tight, stark white T-shirt, while the old lady tries to smear red pottu on her forehead—an effort to erase an important mark of identity, which proves to be a little too difficult. The pottu stains. “It was a time when crossing a road felt like crossing a continent,” the couple muses, recalling an uneasy passage during the civil struggle on a road once too ordinary.
The central narrative follows Ratnam’s uncle Ignacius. We retrace his memories from being the “little brother” in a Sinalese village to his departure from home to join the militant rebels, known as the National Liberation Front of Tamileelam. His uncle is the hero of the family, not because he survived the war, but because he chose to fight in the first place. We follow Ratnam and Ignacius on the train traveling north to where it all began.
On the red train, everything looks worn, familiar and assuring—scribbles marked on the walls of the train, rusty red paints once soaked in sunlight and humility, shiny leather seats polished by time, rhythmic hisses and screeches, jolting couplers at the juncture of two coaches, harmonized bumping of the wheels against the rails. As a witness of history and turmoil in “Demons in Paradise,” the train has seen congestions of bodies, bodies being thrown out of its cars and violence beyond its boundaries.
Among other profound metaphoric scenes—of reunion, a campfire of confession and reflection, of disguises and the violence of the loss of the ordinary—that which struck me the most was when Ignacius discusses the railway that his group tried to dismantle during the war. He takes a piece and sits down under the blazing sun and starts sawing with a simple blade. The grating noise persists against the thin blade, until the small string saw gives in. “What you do is you put water on it, then it goes much longer,” he says, and resumes sawing back and forth into the impenetrable steel. This strenuous effort stands as testimony to the oppression Ignacius felt, the same kind that had pushed his mother to the edge of insanity, to scream from the bottom of the hill, to rip off all her clothes and disguises for she did not know anymore how she should live with her Tamilian identity—a painful memory that incited him to join the Tamilian rebels, to take up arms, “to take power.” This 30-year civil struggle was molded by a kind of oppression where power is only imagined and taught in the arms of violence.
Mundane scenes provoke a sense of immediacy, bridging a passage of resonance through feeling rather than knowing. The film does not explain the backstory of the civil struggle, which, according to Hollywood’s Reporter’s 2017 review, makes the film “inaccessible” to viewers with no background knowledge of the conflict (“‘Demons in Paradise’: Film Review,” The Hollywood Reporter, 06.05.2017). But the goal is not to know as a disengaged viewer, nor to observe as a bystander.
This built-in entitlement to knowledge and the expectation of “Demons in Paradise” to provide it are problematic. When we rely so much on knowledge, we lose the ability to rise above rationality, or to ever come close to fully understanding experiences of violence. When you live in present history, who gives you backstory? History rushes through you, with no specifics—no trigger warning, no insights offered.
Ratnam allows us not to simply see, but to see through his own eyes and his camera, all of which helps us better understand he meant earlier by “I didn’t make the film.” I approached him about the impact of filmmaking on his lived and living experience, and he told me, “I was dragged into this…in hindsight, if you had been making it, you couldn’t have done this.”
His denial of agency is not to rid himself of accountability. He rejects the “ownness” given to the filmmaker; he insists that the film has a life of its own, one that is beyond him. On the opposite side of the screen, Ratnam sits among us on the receptive end.
For Ratnam, the film doesn’t stop with the end of shooting, just as the camera doesn’t go away when the film is finished. The practice of the moving picture permeates one’s living pictures afterwards, “as an extension of your being,” he explains. The omnipresence of the camera after the film marks the “Demons in Paradise” director, like a pottu, the third eye in Hinduism, as a source of truth—the truth of who you are, beyond your marked identity. To have the third eye always open to living present and lived past is to be receptive of the constant transcendence of truth in all its multiplicity.
Let the world rush in.
[Correction (Oct. 3, 2019): An earlier version of this article misnamed one of the main subject groups and their language. The subject group is Tamilian, not “Tamilnese.” The language is Tamil, not “Tamilnese.”]