On 21 February 2017, Lena Hendry was found guilty by a magistrate’s court in Kuala Lumpur for screening “No Fire Zone: The Killing Fields of Sri Lanka” under Section 6 of the Film Censorship Act 2002. This caused an uproar in the local human rights and also the film community, with those following the case closely coming out to make a stand for solidarity, in support of Lena Hendry in particular and against the Film Censorship Act 2002 in general.
“No Fire Zone: The Killing Fields of Sri Lanka” is an award-winning investigative documentary by British filmmaker Callum Macrae about the conclusion of the Sri Lankan civil war that had been raging for over twenty five years. The film focused on the war crimes and crimes against humanity that were committed in the last days of the war, which were largely shielded from public knowledge.
A largely celebrated documentary, “No Fire Zone: The Killing Fields of Sri Lanka” is regarded as a compelling piece of art – a cinematic tour de force. Described as “beautifully crafted and heart wrenching” by the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting in Washington, it resonated with many local film makers. Subject matter notwithstanding, the film has become a reference for aspiring local documentary film makers, from content all the way to execution.
The judgement from the magistrate court ruled that the defence had failed to raise reasonable doubts in their case of unlawful enforcement. The content of the film wasn’t really the focus in the magistrate’s judgement, although it is at the centre of the controversy.
Pusat KOMAS released a press statement on 27th February 2017 to declare their solidarity with Lena Hendry, defending her unapologetically – focusing on the double standards in the enforcement of Section 6 of the Film Censorship Act 2002 and the inconsistencies of the said enforcement. The statement raised the premise that politics were a key factor in the case, with the Sri Lankan government playing an active role in pressing for censorship and affirmative actions against those found publicly screening or distributing the film.
The official statement from the Malaysian Documentary Association (MyDocs), also dated 27th Feb 2017 is less damning but equally supportive, highlighting the role that documentaries play in the film industry for the greater public. They also advocated for greater communication and transparency between the creative film industry and the Malaysian Censorship Board (LPF), while maintaining an efficient and effective balance between the United Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the need for local censorship.
If one were to look for proof and validation that films can affect the world, this case is a brilliant example. Equally stunning as it is disturbing, it represented the impact of a happy marriage between fact and fiction. Effectively making use of film and its language, “No Fire Zone: The Killing Fields of Sri Lanka” told the hear-wrenching story of the bloody end to a globally denounced civil war by using facts and proof in the most compelling way.
A film seeks to move; by questioning, challenging or advocating. It is about representation, and in the face of injustice it serves more than just an expression of pain, it becomes an articulation of hope and perseverance. A statement of intent and purpose. A message of unity and solidarity.
In short, a medium of humanity. For humanity.
And the global reaction to this film – both positive and negative – is proof of art functioning. It has successfully engaged, effectively informed and affirmatively compelled its respondents to act; sharing, and otherwise.
And this brilliantly bold effort to celebrate the best of humanity – in the face of its (own) worst – was met by its biggest foe. With clear involvement from external parties – the governments (both local and Sri Lankan), the judiciary and the policy makers in this controversy, we return to the age old debate –
Where is censorship in arts?
Callum Macrae spent most of 2010-2013 looking at some of the most terrible war images he had seen. A seasoned journalist and award-winning filmmaker, his acclaimed documentary “No Fire Zone: The Killing Fields of Sri Lanka” covered the last 138 days of the war between the government and the Tamil Tiger secessionists. Nothing prepared him for the videos and cell phone footages that he would witness coming from those bloody days.
It is not an exaggeration that the process of his passion and art had consumed a bit of him as he produced the film.
“No Fire Zone: The Killing Fields of Sri Lanka” recorded what happened when the Sri Lankan government instructed 400,000 civilians to gather in so-called “no fire zones” before commencing the exact opposite on these civilians.
Since its March 2013 screening at the 22nd session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, the film has garnered awards across numerous film festivals around the world such as Festival des Libertes 2013, Nuremberg Film Festival 2013 and One World Film Festival Prague 2014. Since the screening, and the subsequent release of an updated version of the film, Callum has gone on to gain international recognition. He has won the Peabody Award USA, the BAFTA Scotland Special Achievement Award and also the Amnesty International Media Award. He was also nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize with his team and nominated for an International Emmy.
That were not his only accolades.
As a result of his damning documentary, Callum has also received death threats. Most were anonymous and offline, but a healthy amount made it online, published by reputable sources in media. One of them even said “Callum Macrae – do not come to Sri Lanka. You will be abducted in a white van, and sent to meet Lasantha Wikremasinghe [sic].” Verbal attacks by (then) current and former government officials on social media platforms such a Twitter also happened.
This lifts the often closed lid on the two-sides of investigative documentaries. On one side it champions hope and justice, and brings out the best in human solidarity; on another it exposes the extreme resentment and opposition of those questioned, often resulting in despicable and simply disheartening examples of human oppression.
Widely praised globally by disparate and wide-ranging personalities, “No Fire Zone: The Killing Fields of Sri Lanka” was also not approved for theatrical release in India by the Indian Central Board of Film Certification.
Callum actively engages the public on matters pertaining to the film, further adding to his stresses of dealing with the adverse effects of the film’s release. Most of these interactions are political in nature, and does not explore nor engage the film making artistry employed by him in making the documentary. He only has time to respond and act to the film’s repercussion, and almost none to enjoy the cinematic joy and benefits of it.
A typically classic case of one being consumed by his art.
Lena Hendry cut a forlorn figure when the magistrate court read out its verdict. Disappointed, she said “We will definitely appeal. No proof to convict me.” before being surrounded and consoled by well-wishers and supporters.
Her case was a long one, and certainly a first in the country.
In July 2013, Lena – then Pusat KOMAS programme coordinator – screened the film “No Fire Zone: The Killing Fields of Sri Lanka.” in a human rights event at the Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall, Kuala Lumpur. The screening was raided by around 30 officials from the Home Ministry, Police and Immigration Department. Lena was arrested along with Pusat KOMAS Executive Director Mr Arul Prakkash and one of the Board Directors Ms Anna Har. On September 19th, Lena was charged under Section 6 (1)(b) of the Film Censorship Act 2002 for screening the documentary.
What followed was a 3 year litigation process that saw Lena initially acquitted on 10th March 2016 before the decision being reversed 6 months later. Despite the magistrate courts assertion that the prosecution failed to prove its case against Lena, that verdict was subject to appeal and on 21st September the appeal was presented and Lena’s acquittal was reversed. Fast forward 5 months later to 21st February 2017, Lena Hendry has been found guilty of the offense and was convicted. She faces up to 3 years imprisonment and/or a fine not exceeding RM30,000.
Despite the lengthy litigation process, until today the charges against Lena are still questionable, and certainly debatable. Regardless, her case is unusual and rare – she was the first human rights activist charged in Malaysia for screening a film.
Section 6 of the Film Censorship Act 2002 states that it an offense to, amongst others, to produce, manufacture, have in one’s possession, circulate, distribute and display such film or film-publicity material which has not been approved by the Board.
Lena Hendry’s arrest centres around this – she had not receive permission or approval from the Malaysian Censorship Board (LPF) when she screened “No Fire Zone: The Killing Fields of Sri Lanka.”
However, the press statement from Pusat KOMAS outlined a few serious concerns of double standards and inconsistencies – Lena was singled out amongst her other colleagues who were present and also involved in organizing the screening, and that the raid and her subsequent arrest was instigated by an unhappy Sri Lankan embassy (substantiated in court but refuted eventually).
More damning is the fact that the press statement also mentioned examples of the same film being screened around the country in various government and non-government events since Lena’s arrest, some of these screenings even conducted in the presence of Home Ministry officials. Notably it was even screened in the 2015 International Anti-Corruption Conference hosted by Kuala Lumpur.
None of these points challenge nor question Section 6 of the Film Censorship Act, at least not directly. They only question the conviction, and the (in)consistency of the charges against Lena as it was harsh, and seemed targeted. As if to make an example out of her. They even pointed out that her offense was procedural; an offense that does not entail the current sentence she is facing.
They raised salient points – if what Lena had done was wrong, then where is the consistency in enforcing the same treatment on the other parties that had screened the same films in their events? If these other parties were not penalized or punished, then what are the grounds of convicting Lena?
Is the content and nature of the documentary an issue? Because if it is so, then why were the other parties screening the films allowed to do so after Lena had been arrested? Surely, her arrest would serve as a deterrent for future screenings?
If their screening were not committing any offense as they had obtain the necessary permission and approval, then why is Lena convicted on the grounds of screening the film itself, rather than committing a procedural offense for not obtaining said permission (that would result in an entirely different punishment)?
As stated in MyDocs’ official statement mentioned earlier, there needs to be a balance in censorship in arts. They stressed that “a certain level of censorship is necessary, as it plays an important role in upholding moral standards”, before advocating for more dialogue and communication between the creative film industry and the LPF to find the perfect balance between protection and development of our society through films.
The idea of censorship in film is not exactly an archaic one, although its enforcement often is relatively speaking. Attitudes and disposition is a huge factor. That said, censorship is relevant, and in volatile socio-economic situations it might even be necessary.
However at its core there must be a balance between the freedom and methods of expression, within the context of intent and purpose of said film. The film is a product of the situation; especially in the event of a documentary it does not primarily exist to cloud judgement or sway public opinion. It is meant to explore, and if necessary, expose hidden truths in the efforts to express and exonerate the aggrieved parties. This is very relevant and completely applicable to “No Fire Zone: The Killings Fields of Sri Lanka.”
The inconsistencies abound in Lena’s case does not highlight the incompetencies of Section 6 or the ineptitude of its enforcement to me, but rather the climate surrounding the censorship (and arrest) itself.
Looking for my own answer to the earlier question of “Where is censorship in arts?” I found myself not really close to any conclusive or useful answer, but instead thinking about a less popular but even more urgent and pressing question –
Is there room for politics in censorship in arts?
I can’t help but to reflect on the many examples of politics in our arts scene – across all levels, genres and scenes – and wonder about what would have been possible had the politics had less to do with it.
If we censor the humanity in art, and stopping ourselves from embracing and facing the beauty and horror of our own humanity in the name of fear, shame and politics, then where is the life in our art?
What do we say in our art, and what does it say about us?