Little depth, lots of stock footage of war
My Daughter the Terrorist. Directed by Beate Arnestad .Reviewed by Aravinda de Silva
My Daughter the Terrorist is a film made by Norwegian director Beate Arnestad about two young women suicide bombers of the LTTE. The film was screened recently at the Full Frame documentary film festival in Durham, North Carolina. TamilNet, the pro-LTTE website, heavily publicized the fact that the film was being screened at a prominent film festival in the US and published an interview with director Arnestad.
Many Sri Lankans in the US were upset that the “premier” documentary film festival in the country was screening a film about the LTTE and its suicide bombers. Just before the film was to be screened there was a flurry of activity to convince the organizers not to screen it. Despite the strong views, mostly against the film, few had actually seen it. So, a few of us decided to attend the festival and see the film. My Daughter was screened as a double feature with To See If I am Smiling, a film by Tamar Yarom about young Israeli women serving in the army. In a brief introduction to the two films, Ariel Dorfman, the writer and playwright, described the films as depicting women as warriors rather than victims. I tried my best to watch the film with an open mind.
Beate Arnestad has stated that her intention in making this film was to explore what drives a person to become a suicide bomber. I was disappointed by the film because it gave me little insight into the psychology of suicide bombers. Most of the film consisted of Arnestad interviewing the two girls and their mother and filming the girls when they are pretending to be training or stalking the enemy. The rest of the film is stock footage of fighting and terror incidents taken by the Defence Ministry or LTTE.
The two main characters displayed little emotion and were matter of fact about their willingness to blow themselves up. The only character I empathized with was the mother of one suicide bomber, who was dignified and talked about the sorrow of losing her daughter. Especially in contrast to To See If I am Smiling, which showed the complex, contradictory emotions faced by women soldiers at war, My Daughter was flat. I was not surprised that My Daughter won no awards at the festival in Durham.
The question and answer session that followed the film left me feeling angry and frustrated. Arnestad started by stating that these women were handpicked by the LTTE for her film and that they were most likely kidnapped and recruited into the LTTE as children. She also said that if any of her subjects said anything critical of the LTTE, they would have been killed. Working under such restrictive conditions, how can she claim that her film is an exploration of what motivates people to become suicide bombers? The film needs to have a clear description or disclaimer highlighting the conditions under which it was made.
As some have claimed, I do not believe that Arnestad had any ulterior motives or that she is an agent of the LTTE. I disagree with my friends who are trying to get this film banned. But I do believe that organizations screening the film have a responsibility to provide the audience with a balanced background to the conflict and to highlight the highly restrictive conditions under which the film was made. Otherwise, some people might leave the film thinking that Dharsika and Pulhalchudar, the two suicide bombers, represent a special brand of new warrior. The sad truth is that they are victims of the conflict in Sri Lanka who have been abused and manipulated both as children and adults.
(The reviewer is Associate Professor, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, USA)