‘We want our children back’ a distraught mother implores, ‘we can’t live like this anymore.’ Her anguished words cut through the otherwise calm tenor of Kannan Arunasalam’s two channel film installation ‘The Tent’ (2018) which documents peaceful protests of wives, mothers (and some fathers) who gather at a tent erected opposite a government building in Mullaitivu, Sri Lanka, seeking answers as to the fate of their relatives. An estimated 100,000 people disappeared during the country’s 1983-2009 civil war between the government and Tamil Tigers. On the film’s right-hand screen intermittent black and white footage documents busy protest days with crowds solemnly holding up photographs of lost loved ones. On the left, a colour projection shows just two or three women keeping vigil. Long, slow-paced shots communicate time passing. They sweep the tent’s floor, maintain a fire and make tea. A woman updates a sign tallying four hundred and sixty nine days of continuous protest.
Arunasalam describes himself as a documentary maker. The Tent is his first gallery exhibition and provided an opportunity for him to explore the two-screen format. Steady, full colour footage adjoins hand-held black and white; creating a contrast between repose and agitation and between prosaic moments and media conscious events. Clever interplay occurs, for instance, when footage of a protester addressing reporters is paired with that of a woman chopping wood, evoking both tenacity and potential violence. Though informationally sparse about the specifics of the war and identities of the disappeared (which accompanying gallery text suggests spanned both sides of the conflict) The Tent is emotionally rich. It elicits sympathy for the women depicted and admiration for their perseverance.
Two of Arunasalam’s older films follow a more conventional, single screen, documentary format. First person interviews interweave with footage that echoes and illustrates their accounts. In ‘Kerosene’ (2011) a group of men restore derelict cars. The camera focuses on car parts and their hands as they describe how government embargoes during the civil war led to fuel shortages. The men’s passion for cars and skill in overcoming the shortages (welding their own replacement parts and shifting fuels from petrol to kerosene), jars with the reality described by a taxi driver contending with conflict to transport patients to hospital.
‘Paper’ (2011) depicts newspapers being printed and folded and tells of how newsprint was rationed too. Innocuous objects – fuel and paper – provide a focus around which Arunasalam weaves very human stories. We hear how the Jaffna publishers, interviewed here, resorted to cardboard and lined paper to continue circulating information on bombings and casualties. The risks they took are starkly illustrated by brief but graphic images of two dead employees, shot during an army raid. Though upsetting, the piece makes the violence of civil war approachable through a particular context and the specific (often pragmatic choices) of the interviewees.
The remainder of the exhibition is made up of a series of short film and photographic portraits (2009-2013). Each of eight films – shown on clusters of flat-screen monitors – represents a Sri Lankan who describes an aspect of their life. A Veddah chief tells how language and dress have altered since his parents’ generation. A woman explains her choice to stay in the country when her family have emigrated. And a gravedigger enumerates the differences between Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Anglican and Roman Catholic burials, asserting ‘they are basically the same.’ Their stories are engaging and Arunasalam’s imagery is arresting. However, the pacing and placing of the shorts makes them difficult to watch. Fleeting stills fight with subtitled voiceovers for the viewers’ attention and some of the films are overwhelmed by their position in the Tetley’s large and noisy atrium space.
Overcome these frustrations and there is a cumulative impact to these shorts. Arunasalam was born in Jaffna but grew up in the UK. In 2005 he moved back to his birth country and, as the exhibition guide describes, was struck by ‘monolithic expressions of identity’ that pervaded contemporary life. The examples here are part of a larger collection of sixty-six films made to counter such sectarianism. They celebrate multifarious and layered identities without downplaying divisions between ethnic and religious groups. In these works and in The Tent as a whole Arunasalam invites us along on his journey to understand Sri Lanka. He probes the civil war and represents its losses but – by foregrounding individual stories of determination and diversity – aspires to a more unified future.
Kannan Arunasalam: The Tent runs from 16 February to 02 June 2019, at The Tetley, Leeds.
Amelia Crouch is an artist and writer based in Yorkshire.