It was a case that stood out as a thorn in Sri Lanka’s judicial history. It was 1996 and while a major part of the country was suffering the ravages of the Civil War, Kamalawathi, a village woman from Mahawa, north-western province of Sri Lanka, accused a sitting Judicial Magistrate of sexually assaulting her. In the coming months, a lesser-known Sinhalese daily Ravaya carried the first news report about this woman’s ordeal detailing the exact sequence of events. “The litmus test for any judiciary comes when someone from their own clan is accused of a grave crime,” says award-winning Sri Lankan filmmaker Prasanna Vithanage, who has just made his first documentary, Silence in the Courts, based on this incident. Though the case went unreported by mainstream media and the Judicial Magistrate was given a probation in 2000 by the Supreme Court, it was still talked about in Sri Lanka within judicial circles.
The 57-minute documentary, screened last week at the India International Centre, Delhi, carefully examines and recreates the events of that day in June 1996. Based on the evidence presented before the court, transcripts from the cross-examination of witnesses, interview with the journalist who wrote several articles about the incident, the Human Rights lawyer who campaigned for this case, and other people, Vithanage paints a vivid picture of how a gullible village woman got exploited. “I am using this case only as a platform to reveal how the power structure in Sri Lanka — the attorney general, the law minister, the President — operate. When people are pushed to the wall, they only want to maintain their self-dignity,” adds Vithanage, who approached Kamalawathi to be a part of the documentary, but she declined as she didn’t want to draw attention on herself anymore.
Vithanage’s last feature film, With You Without You, which won five international awards, looked at the life of a married couple who were living in the country side in the aftermath of the Sri Lankan Civil War. It was well received after its commercial release in India last June. Having dabbled in theatre, and writing, Vithanage has seven feature films to his credit around the subject of human rights.
While making the documentary, Vithanage had to dramatise some sections only to support the evidence visually. In a few scenes which have been shot in Mahawa, Vithanage briefly highlights the irony of the place, which is known for sending in youngsters to the Sri Lankan army.
While the dead soldiers have monuments erected on their graves in their memory, Kamalawathi’s case remains buried under paper work. “Poverty forces the youth to join the army and most of the women have fled the country to work as maids in the middle east,” says Vithanage, who is seeking a distributor for commercial release in Sri Lanka.