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Germany / Poland

Agnieszka Zwiefka • Director of Scars

“What this film in particular taught me is not to judge people”


- We found out more about the Polish filmmaker’s latest documentary, in which she tells the story of the women who fought with the Tamil Tigers

Agnieszka Zwiefka • Director of Scars

Polish director Agnieszka Zwiefka produced her new documentary, Scars [+see also:
film review
interview: Agnieszka Zwiefka
film profile
, over a time frame of four years. She visited Sri Lanka eight times to find out more about the country’s past and the destiny of the women who were once members of the Tamil Tigers. After the film was released online in Germany at the end of April (available on Vimeo and Kino on Demand, courtesy of distributor Rise and Shine), she told us how she was able to find her protagonists and how she dealt with the sheer brutality of the topic.

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Cineuropa: Why was it important for you to tell the story of these women?
Agnieszka Zwiefka:
For me, Scars is an attempt to understand what makes one (especially a teenage girl) join a terrorist organisation and what price a woman must pay for her fight. It broaches just how impossible it is to escape from one's past. This female perspective was the reason why I wanted to make this film in the first place, because it's the women who paid the highest price for participating in Sri Lanka's bloody civil war.

How did you get to know your protagonists?
It all started when I went on holiday with my family to Sri Lanka. Beautiful beaches, blue lagoons, palm trees... Paradise. But soon, I found out that the beach that tourists were sunbathing on was actually a cemetery, as thousands of people were killed in the final days of the 25-year-long civil war. This is a face of paradise I was not aware of. I started to ask questions, meet people and, soon enough, found out that the history and the present times are much darker than one would expect. I was surprised to learn that almost half of the Tamil Tigers fighters were women, which is not only the highest percentage among militant groups, but also a very unusual case in a patriarchal culture. From one day to the next, these women decided to take off their colourful sarees, cut their hair and become guerilla fighters for many years to come. After the war ended in 2009, many of them were brutally raped or killed. They still live under continuous threat. When I found out the details, I knew it was a story I wanted to tell. But it wasn't easy to reach these women; you can't just go and find them, as many are still in hiding, living away from society. There was always one name that everyone kept mentioning – Vetrichelvi, which in Tamil means “Miss Victory”. When I met her, I instantly knew she was the perfect protagonist for a film. And she was the only one brave enough to talk openly. The others just followed.

How did you conduct your research?
It wasn't easy. I started immediately, during my holidays. It was hours and hours of conversations with people who are human rights activists and who work with former fighters. They kept telling me it would be impossible to make this film, that these women would never trust me or open up. Even the activists I was meeting were very cautious, double-checking who I was and what my intentions were. They always sat in a way which enabled them to watch the door, whoever was coming in or going out. And the more questions I asked, the more silence I was faced with. I immediately realised it wouldn’t be easy to make this film. But I'm stubborn, and all of these difficulties made me want to tell this story even more.

Was it difficult to get the footage showing the Tamil Tigers training?
It took some time, as most of the footage from the frontline was shot by Tamil Tigers themselves. Foreign TV stations and reporters were only allowed to film the frontline at random, and the vast majority of the LTTE [Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam] footage was destroyed at the end of the war, as everyone who was about to surrender tried to get rid of it. Being caught with LTTE frontline footage could mean losing your life. My protagonist remembers burning many tapes and notes just before she surrendered. So there is not much left.

Why was it important for you to add the fictional scenes in the film?
While filming Scars, we soon realised that there were parts of the story that my protagonist wanted to erase from history and keep hidden. Each time we mentioned forcibly recruited fighters – girls who did not join voluntarily, as she did, but ones who were kidnapped by the LTTE from their houses, sometimes as young as 12 years old – Vetrichelvi would change the subject, running away from her responsibility, as she had her own share of the blame in brainwashing them and preparing them to fight. These are her skeletons in the closet, and I felt the story of former female Tamil Tigers fighters would not be honest without including these testimonies. So we decided on some poetic and minimalistic, symbolic re-enactments in a black studio filled with black water. They work in the same way nightmares do – they hit you for a couple of seconds and then go away, but they leave their trace in your memory.

What does the movie mean to you?
What this film in particular taught me is not to judge people. What fascinated me about this story and Vetrichelvi herself was the fact that she is, at the same time, a victim of the decades-long abuse of the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka and a perpetrator, as she is a propagandist who had her share of the responsibility in recruiting young girls. She is neither good nor bad, but somewhere in between.

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