The documentary series P.O.V. kicks off its 19th season on PBS tonight with the hour-long “No More Tears Sisters,” about slain human rights activist Dr. Rajani Thiranagama.
Canadian filmmaker Helene Klodawsky uses recreations, interviews and archival footage to tell the story of Rajani, who was assassinated at age 35 in 1989 while struggling for social justice in her native Sri Lanka.
Rajani left the relative comfort of her middle-class upbringing to chart a course involving Tamil revolutionaries, who were at odds with the Sri Lankan government. (Tamil were a minority group in opposition to the majority Sinhalese.)
Most Americans probably haven’t even thought of a character such as Rajani, who as a college student helped lead a leftist Christian movement dedicated to equality and justice for everyone, whether Tamil or Sinhalese, Buddhist or Christian.
“Tears” tells Rajani’s story largely through narration by Michael Ondaatje (author of The English Patient) and interviews with those close to Rajani—namely, her husband, Dayapala; parents; two daughters; and older sister, Nirmala, whose own revolutionary activity helped pave the way for Rajani.
My chief problem with “Tears” is that Rajani actually seems a distant character. Part of this is perhaps inevitable when making a film whose subject is deceased with precious little primary documentation. Aside from a few photos and letters, Rajani is dependent on the voices and recreations of others.
To be sure, the recreations are well done—subtle and visually thoughtful. In fact, Rajani is portrayed by one of her daughters, Sharika. But you wonder while watching “Tears” why Nirmala wasn’t chosen to be the focus (other than the obvious but incomplete answer that Rajani was the one killed).
Nirmala’s interviews are ample, and she too fought injustice—and in fact still feels guilty for encouraging Rajani’s interest in justice issues and how they were approached.
Nevertheless, Rajani was no doubt a complex character: doctor, mother, wife, revolutionary. Filmmaker Klodawsky is known for her work on women who have been marginalized, but whose lives reveal strong cores and dramatic arcs.
Rajani is one such character. She observes civil strife, works for change, speaks out, gets killed. She in fact predicted she would die at the hands of people philosophically on her side, and her words were prescient. Tamil revolutionaries brooked no dissension in their ranks, and Rajani paid the ultimate price for practicing a freedom she valued and sought for all.
“No More Tears Sister” is important for American audiences because it reminds us that violent conflicts occur in more places than those on our front pages, and that spreading ideas was, and is, one of humankind’s most dangerous games.
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
P.O.V.’s official Web site is here.
The P.O.V. “No More Tears Sister” Web site is here. (It includes a discussion guide and many more good materials.)
EthicsDaily.com will review more documentaries from this season’s P.O.V. series. Bookmark us!