Looking a gift horse in the throat
Remember that offensive film titled "In the Name of Buddha" that evoked protests in parliament and from the press and public after this column raised the issue at the butt end of 2002?

The makers of the film claimed their intention was to convey the message of peace and were making a powerful case for an end to Sri Lanka's conflict.

Whatever their publicly stated intention, the theme of the film was an obnoxious, provocative and offensive attack on Buddhists and Buddhism, giving a new dimension to the searing conflict.

In screening the film in the Christian world, they intended to whip up anger and condemnation of Sinhala Buddhists by portraying them as an aggressive group, guilty of violence against the Tamil people.

To achieve that end, they even distorted traditional Buddhist ceremonies and rites. I was somehow transported back to that December day nearly three years ago when I attended the screening of a package of six short films under the title "Reel Peace in Sri Lanka," at the Royal Commonwealth Society last week.

"In the Name of Buddha" was vulgarly propagandist and grossly partisan.
"Reel Peace" was an amalgam of the grotesquely one-sided, the subtly provocative and the politically neutral.

If the first was a deliberate attack on a religion as an instigator of violence, the latter, taken as a whole, seemed suspiciously like an insidious comment on the State as provoking war and therefore conflict.

The intentions of those who made "In the Name of Buddha" were clear.
The aim of those who originated the "Reel Peace" project that resulted in these films surely was certainly more honourable.

But as the old saying goes even the way to hell is paved with good intentions. What the UK-based charity Scriptnet intended was to train scriptwriters, directors and producers who would then collaborate in producing seven short films and a project documentary that, it was hoped, would contribute to the peace process.

Among the aims were to foster "an integrated Tamil and Sinhala media and to demonstrate to the international community the inspiring stories of dignity and reconciliation."

Moreover Scriptnet says: "During the many years of hostilities, there was a lot of misrepresentation within the media of the conflict and the impact that this was having on real situations of the "ordinary" people of both sides. 'Reel peace' is about producing honest and representative stories that can contribute to a wider understanding of the need for social and cultural reconciliation."

Laudable objectives, no doubt. Cynics, on the other hand, might ask why it is that persons with such good intentions did not turn their considerable efforts to social and cultural reconciliation in an older conflict and one much closer home- the one across the Irish Sea. That might have been more meaningful given the social and cultural affinities and a greater understanding of the ethos, unlike that in Sri Lanka, which was largely unfamiliar, if not entirely strange, to most foreigners involved in the project.

We are told that during the conflict - the nature of which is not spelt out at all - there was a "lot of misrepresentation within the media". We are not told which media but one supposes that it is the Sri Lanka media that are expected to plead mea culpa and cover their head in shame.

While there is some truth in the observation, why should Sri Lanka's media be seen as the sole (and perhaps soul) offender? Are we expected to accept that the western media did not contribute to the exacerbation of the conflict?

The manner in which the western media distorted the conflict, misrepresented issues, and worse still, displayed a shocking ignorance of facts has been extensively documented.

In fact, I took the London Sunday Times to the Press Complaints Commission for violating the Code of Practice on its reports on Sri Lanka by Marie Colvin and its subsequent refusal to publish my reply. The PCC held in my favour and the Sunday Times had to publish the adjudication.

So having castigated the local media - presumably - and having declared that 'Reel Peace' would present "honest and representative stories that can contribute to a wider understanding", one naturally waited in anticipation to see this avowed honesty and representativeness translated through the medium of cinema.

Alas, I waited in vain. If representativeness meant seeing the effect of the conflict from different perspectives and its effect on a multi-ethnic, multi-religious society, then one saw little or nothing of it.

When the screening finally ended after several technical glitches and a discussion resulted, I asked why it is that the victims of this conflict all belonged to one ethnic group.

Is it that others did not suffer as a result of terrorist bombings in Colombo and elsewhere? Were foreigners not killed when a civilian plane was blown up? Were innocent Sinhala and Muslim peasants not the victims of numerous atrocities? Why was this element totally missing from the package of films that was screened? There was nothing whatsoever of the suffering, of the terrible impact of the conflict on the people of the South and East?

I understand that the British Council, one of the sponsors had a look at the various scripts submitted for inclusion in the package. It is also said that UNESCO actually saw even the rushes of the films that were eventually screened.

Did it not strike either of these two organisations that the package of films showed a ludicrous lopsidedness after all the high-minded rhetoric about honesty, representativeness that preceded it and talk of "demonstrating to the international community the inspiring stories of dignity and reconciliation."

Are we to understand that there were no scripts submitted that showed the impact of the conflict on other parts of the country and other communities? If not should an effort have been made to encourage film-makers in the rest of the country also to participate to achieve that much-vaunted representativeness.

Nobody in his right mind would call for curbs on artistic freedom or the freedom of expression. But there is a need to be more wary of those who come bearing gifts particularly when such one-dimensional pictures are conveyed to foreign audiences.

Some might prefer not to look a gift horse in the mouth. After last week's experience, one should not only look it in the mouth but the throat as well. Remember the Trojan horse?

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