For You, the Disappeared
Aug 25, 2023
Chamara Prasanna Kodithuwakku
The emotional toll of over 12,000 enforced disappearances in Sri Lanka is examined in Ranga Bandaranayake’s For You, the Disappeared – a short documentary that contains undeniable emotional power but lacks sufficient storytelling or factual context to bring to life a dark period of the country’s past.
The film is made up of the testimonies of families who lost loved ones to ‘disappearances’ – both at the hands of the Sri Lankan security services as well as paramilitary groups. The film’s narration outlines the devastating results of the criminal acts, and how it has shaped Sri Lanka since. As well as documenting the past, the film acts as a plea for the disappearances never to return – and for action and awareness to be utilised against any potential return.
For You, the Disappeared is a short that is designed very much for Sri Lankan audiences, and very much for the victims, families, and any impacted by the horrific ‘disappearances’ that took place in the country during its civil war in the 80s and 90s. This is both its strength and weakness. Told entirely in Tamil, the emotional testimonies from families whose lives have been turned upside down by the film’s topic break any international boundaries and will draw a tear from audiences regardless of where they are in the world. However, a key downfall of the film is the lack of history or context it features surrounding the war, or any other motivations behind the disappearances themselves. Whilst the conflicts do not necessarily have to be the film’s focus, the way it is practically determined to dance around the subject – acting almost as though the disappearances were a simple fact of life – makes the film present as confusing and difficult to appreciate for viewers unfamiliar with the country’s history.
The film takes impressive steps to truly realise the evil of enforced disappearances. Horrific crimes are punctuated by shocking and piercing cuts in which family photos undergo a sudden transition where one member has now been replaced by a silhouette – a heartbreaking representation of the result of a disappearance. Production is rough at times with repetitive musical cues and unpolished effects and visuals, the unapologetic stand the film takes against disappearances, as well as passionate advocacy for the victims, means that the message of the film comes through regardless.
The energy and emotion in For You, the Disappeared are evidential of the film’s purpose – to be for the disappeared (it’s in the title after all). However, it does feel that omitting the history, context, causes and alignments that were critical to the deployment of enforced disappearances is a significant oversight. And for a film that sets out to prevent disappearances happening anywhere again in the world, it has to be said that this is a failing. “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it” after all. For You, the Disappeared really should have offered more opportunities to learn from the past.