Film Update

No More Tears Sister - Narmada Thiranagama

POV: You and your family worked with filmmaker Helene Klodawsky during the making of No More Tears Sister. What was it like to finally see the finished film on the big screen?

No More Tears Sister - Narmada Thiranagama

Narmada Thiranagama: In the beginning, we didn't really know how involved we would get with this film. We just wanted to publicize issues about human rights abuses in Sri Lanka and get justice for my mother. But then when I saw the film on the big screen, I realized what an emotional impact the film would have on me. It really got under my skin. My aunt and I had the same reaction: We both started seeing my mother again, almost like a living person. She became so much closer, so much more visible, not so much in the past. I imagine my mother much more present in my life since the film.

It's also very emotional seeing other people's reactions to the film. People have been moved -- people who don't really know about Sri Lanka and my mother. They've asked fascinating questions about politics, parents and children, about identity, about conflict. Some of the younger people at screenings have asked me about what you do when your parents are activists, in fact.

POV: And what was your response to the question? How do you feel about the personal sacrifices your mother made because of her activism?

Narmada: I think if there's one thing my mother taught me, it's that all women are asked to make sacrifices in their lives. That's something I saw in the community I grew up in as well. I think that my grandmother made as much of a sacrifice in her life, in some ways. I grew up seeing that this very bright, capable woman spent her life caring for children. She never went to university. She had some education and became a teacher, and the quality of toughness in my mother came from her. But I could always see that there was a kind of repressed energy in my grandmother. Women made sacrifices in our community all the time, and all over the world.

My mother taught me that politics is not just party politics, it's not just politics with a big P. Sometimes the choices that people make in their lives everyday are political. My mother was condemned for teaching at a university, asking awkward questions about students who had disappeared, continuing to care about issues that other people would prefer no one looked at or noticed, even for wearing skirts [that] didn't cover her ankles. When she married a Sinhalese man, my father, that was a political choice too.

All of her actions, and the way she was condemned for them, highlighted, for me, the dangerous choices a woman can make. I think she really did exemplify that the personal is political. So I get my understanding about politics from her. My mother and father tried to retain their humanity in the difficult circumstances, and that was what their political activism was. And so how can I not understand why they made the sacrifices that they did? The alternative was too terrible.

POV: What do you remember about Sri Lanka?

Narmada: My memories of Sri Lanka are both painful and beautiful. It was a wonderful place to grow up for my sister and me. But with my mother's death, Sri Lanka became so traumatizing. Her death was a huge shock. I was so scared for many years afterwards. When I was young, my mother seemed so sure, so confident. I didn't think anyone could ever do anything to her, and she wouldn't allow anything to be done to us. I had complete confidence in her, and I thought she could do anything. When she was killed, it tore the rug out from under me. I wanted to run away.

We moved to England after my mother was killed, and I've lived in England since then. I went back to Sri Lanka one more time when my grandmother was dying, which coincided with the shooting for "No More Tears Sister." That was a wonderful visit. It was a healing visit. I really do love Sri Lanka, and in some ways, it will always be my home.

I used to think about walking the streets of Jaffna, to my house, all the time. I used to think that it would be the happiest moment for me -- it would be a wonderful day. It would mean that the situation would have changed politically. It would represent more than a homecoming, it would mean a resuscitation of the community.

But I can't go back to Jaffna anymore. At least [not] until the Tigers cease to be able to influence politics through violence. The use of violence would have to stop; that's the only way I can go back.

POV: What do you do now?

Narmada: I work for a trade union in England. Actually, I got into the union work almost by accident. I was looking for jobs after I left university and then applied for a job as an assistant in the office of the general secretary of this trade union. I did that for six years in the end! Recently I got a promotion to work in the equality and training part of our union. I'm working on women's work and pay, racism and issues related to work for other minority groups.

I find this work really rewarding because I get to see politics from the other side -- the "high" political process: negotiations between government and interest groups, the process of legislation, how the political process works in Britain. I studied history at university, and there's always a divide between "high" politics -- the history of kings and queens, great men and women -- and "social" history: the history of the mass of people, large political and economic forces where the individual doesn't have much agency.

Nowadays in academia, there is much more understanding about how the history of ideas, concepts and philosophy is part and parcel of the history of social movements. The divide between those two forms of history is artificial, and it's understood that individuals interact with larger forces, and one person can have agency. An individual can have so much power, but yet, it's not enough. You have to motivate and move others and go with them.

In some ways, that's related to the work that I do, which is now more policy work for the union. I look at trade unions and how they're growing, especially with black workers and women workers who are now joining unions in larger numbers, and I think about how we can best serve them. A lot of the work I do is about supporting the communities that are disadvantaged, how to train them and support them. It's intellectually demanding and politically satisfying for me.

POV: What do you think your mother's legacy is?

Narmada: She has both a political legacy and an emotional legacy. The emotional legacy is for the people who knew her. The political legacy is for the people who never met her.

Her emotional legacy is to be an example of the vulnerability of courage. After she died and I moved to England, I started falling apart. I didn't feel very strong or courageous or anything. I remembered that my mother wasn't always together. But you can be someone who bends or even breaks and still be strong. Vulnerability can be strength. She also had a passion for life. My mother had a joie de vivre. She would laugh a lot or cry a lot. She also appreciated all the small things. She had a powerful and inspirational way of living life that was honest and uncompromising.

Her political legacy is that one person can make a difference, even if you have nothing to fight back with. You can be dangerous and powerful even if you don't carry a gun. I hope she's a symbol -- not an abstract symbol, but a real human symbol -- that she draws attention away from slogans and rhetoric, and draws attention to the people, and to the realities of life. To say, "Never mind your aims and aspirations and rhetoric, what are you actually doing?"

My mother's legacy is not finished yet. She couldn't finish what she wanted to do, so let's finish it for her.