Two years ago Channel 4 aired a shocking documentary. The film, directed by Callum Macrae, was almost made entirely out of extremely distressing amateur videos depicting the gruesome horrors of the Sri Lankan civil war in 2009. Presented by Jon Snow, ‘Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields’ became known as one of the most graphic and disturbing documentaries in British television history and won the team a Nobel Peace Prize-nomination.
A year later, in 2012, a follow up film, Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields: War Crimes Unpunished, was broadcast which reiterated in more detail the evidence of war crimes, torture and rape by the military. This time the programme also presented a case against the Sri Lankan government, following an apparent lack of action from the international community to hold those in charge to account.
The two documentaries were a success, for the broadcaster’s ratings and also as an instigator for discussions on international levels.
Now, again one year later, very little has changed unfortunately and a new documentary is on the verge of being released.
But after two 50-minute documentaries on the same topic by the same director, is it too cynical to ask whether if we haven’t already seen it all?
“A meticulous and chilling expose of some of the worst war crimes and crimes against humanity of recent times”
The new feature length film, entitled No Fire Zone – The Killing Fields of Sri Lanka, is once again directed by Macrae, but without direct involvement from Channel 4. The documentary features similar story lines from the other two programmes, as well as many of their characters. In fact, there are big chunks of the exact same material used from the predecessors, which for some will feel like a bit of a déjà vu experience. The graphics have been given a facelift, but some quotes are simply copied and pasted in and much of the same amateur videos previously aired are being recycled.
The film starts on the gruesome day when a group of UN peace keepers were forced to leave Tamil Tiger territory. What follows is the chronological account of a 138-day civilian massacre orchestrated by the government’s military forces – an accusation which to this day has been vigorously denied by Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapaksa despite overwhelming evidence.
A difference with the other two documentaries is that this time there is a very prominent role in the film for the controversial Rajapaksa – now in his 8th year in power – and his brother, Gotabaya Rajapaksa the Defence Secretary. According to the evidence in the film, they were directly in charge of the civilian massacre and were well aware of the horrendous war crimes. The account of how the war progressed is very detailed, giving a clear idea of what happened. After further verification we now also find out some of the stories behind the faces in the amateur footage.
“It shocks, it informs, and it changes minds. But only if people go on seeing it.”
The film is shocking, gruesome and uncomfortable to watch, factors only enhanced by the measured pace of the film. Although this documentary is more detailed and brings an up to date story with more evidence, there is relatively little new material compared to what was included in the previous films.
But even though the story is so similar to the first instalments it does serve a specific purpose, which is underlined by the extremely successful crowdfunding campaign for an impact distribution the team went through back in May. It is time the world undertakes action.
The film is clearly aimed at people who have not seen the first two documentaries, but even if you have, this story is too important to die out. So far there has been very little action against those responsible for the crimes against humanity in Sri Lanka. This film is desperately trying to rectify that.
Watch this story again and again and do please get angry at what has been done to those thousands of Tamil civilians. Only then will we perhaps take action against Rajapaksa and those involved. Until then, Macrae better be prepared to make a new ‘Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields’ documentary to be released in 2014.
No Fire Zone: The Killing Fields of Sri Lanka will be screening at Sheffield Doc/Fest on Friday 14 June at 19:45. Director Callum Macrae and producer Zoe Sale will attend for a Q&A session at ITV Town Hall Reception Rooms.