Prasanna Vithanage, writer, director, producer and distributer of the Sinhala documentary film Usaviya Nihandai, in English ‘Silence of the Court’, Prasanna Vithanage spoke to weekend Nation regarding the controversy surrounding his film which is described as a filmmaker’s quest to unearth the cause of an injustice where two women were denied justice and a journalist failed in his struggle to deliver justice to them.
The synopsis in the Internet Movie Database of the one hour documentary film states thus.
‘Two women from a farming village about 100 kilometres away from the country’s capital were raped within a year by a magistrate, presiding over cases which involved their husbands as accused parties. They then went to the Judicial Services Commission (JSC), the Bar Association of Sri Lanka and to the President, seeking justice. Those institutions and the people in them were unresponsive to their complaints. The angered husbands of the two women swore revenge. Yet, their efforts to avenge the magistrate became futile. An editor of a leading alternative newspaper publishes the story of one of the women. He continues to follow up on the incident and publishes a series of articles exposing the magistrate. The then Attorney General refused to take action against the magistrate. The said editor publishes the cover up and with the buildup of peer pressure, three years after the incidents took place, the JSC appoints a tribunal consisting of three Court of Appeal judges to investigate the allegations made by the newspaper. The tribunal finds the magistrate to be guilty of all charges. Instead of dismissing the magistrate from his duties, the JSC sends him on compulsory leave with pay. The family lives of two women had been destroyed and after failing to acquire justice, the editor focused his struggle against the Attorney General who covered up the case. The Attorney General is then appointed as the Chief Justice of the country and the editor writes a book based on this woman’s story about the judicial system’s failure to deliver justice to the commoner. Fourteen years later, even today, the editor and the two women are still waiting for justice to be served. In the year 2014, a filmmaker embarks on a journey to unearth these events and search for the root cause behind this injustice’.
Here below are a few excerpts from the interview.
Q.Since the injunction on the screening of the film was lifted and the film is being shown now, what has been the reaction to it?
The feedback which I am getting on my latest cinematic venture, a documentary based on a true incident, ‘Usaviya Nihandai’ is satisfactory. It is more than what I expected. I think that this is the first time people, who bought tickets for a documentary film have waited in a queue to watch it. The notion I had following the first couple of days of the screening of the film is that the opportunity to see it would not be missed by the educated middle class of the society.
Q: Why did you choose to tell this story?
This story is a known one based on an actual incident, yet it had been neglected by all. As a filmmaker, I wanted not only to make another film, but also to deliver justice to the innocent people who have no ways and means of fighting for their own rights. After reading Founder Editor of the Ravaya newspaper, Victor Ivan’s book ‘An Unfinished Struggle: For the Independence of the Judiciary, An Unfinished Struggle: An Investigative Exposure of Sri Lanka’s Judiciary and the Chief Justice’, the story about two women who were denied justice, I felt it was my turn now to deliver the justice for them and that is how ‘Usaviya Nihandai’ came to be.
Q: There are certain criticisms levelled against the film in that commercial interests were and are behind the controversy surrounding the screening. How do you care to respond?
I completely deny this allegation. There were no commercial purposes when I planned this film. I and co-producer HD Premasiri held the same stance with regard to this. We were on the same wavelength. We were engaging in an awareness campaign. We did not want to be passive bystanders even after we clearly noticed that the justice system had failed to deliver justice and it protected the culprits instead of the victims. I have not sensationalized the script here. The latter is something I have never done or will do.
Q: What will be the final outcome of all this?
The court will hear the case and the people will then realize that the cinema can also be an eye-opener to the society.
Q: Was this case a publicity stunt to deliberately court controversy so that it would make for good publicity?
I deny allegations that I expected my film to face some kind of suspension. Not a single filmmaker will be happy to face such a situation. When a film is censored or the screening of it is suspended, it creates a whole lot of issues. For me, this suspension has affected me in three ways; I had to spend money on the legal activities; I lose my time in vain; and I lose my freedom. The latter, third aspect is the most important factor and losing it is worrisome.
On the other hand, if a producer feels that the film will be banned or suspended, they will not invest in such a film. Producers never want to take such a risk. However, it is the public who finally decide whether it is worthwhile to suspend. They do so after watching such creations. Therefore, I do not bother about what others say, but think simply that I have opened a new avenue with regard to where even documentaries can go.