Short film: ‘A mango tree in my front yard’ by R. Pradeepan (email@example.com)
The whole is immanent in its parts (Ananda Coomaraswamy)
The film’s opening scene of trees, palms and a pond is abruptly disturbed by the sound of heavy, automatic, gunfire in the distance. It provides a contrast between the peace and beauty of nature, and the violence and ugliness of human action. Film is an audio-visual medium but Mango tree relies far more on the latter than on dialogue. Three Tamil children, two girls and a boy (sister, younger brother and friend?) are on their way to school. The two girls seem to be between twelve and fourteen; the boy, younger. The girls talk about a fellow-pupil, Sivajini, absent from school because her father has been abducted. Children robbed of childhood, there is a degree of unease, and tension on their faces. The little boy kicks something on the edge of the path, and is anxiously shepherded back to the road by his sister, no doubt, fearful of unexploded devices. Each of the girls carries an earthed plant in a plastic bag, their entry to a school-competition.
The scene shifts, and we see government (Sinhalese) soldiers in military vehicles. One of them speaks about a woman he had had – not as young as he’d have liked, he comments. War means death, injury and damage. During wars, some exemplify courage and make great sacrifices, but there are others who are unable to hold on to ethics and the decencies of life: it was that woman’s husband who helped the soldier to have sex with her. Why did he do it? Was he depraved or terrorised? In a short-story, much remains unknown and unclear, and so it is with a very short film, such as Mango tree. The soldier spots one of the girls, walking alone, along the road: most probably, returning home after school. The next we see is a grave being hastily dug by the soldiers. A body, wrapped up, is placed in it, and the ground stamped down to hide the spot. We are left to infer that the girl, still a child, has been gang-raped and murdered by the soldiers. The film avoids prurience, and we are spared details: the callous brutality on the one hand; the terror of a helpless girl on the other. However, while safeguarding decency and dignity, the film also suggests it’s a commonplace occurrence in Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict – and that makes it all the worse! (The Tamil Tigers, charged with many crimes, have not been accused of rape, not even by the Sinhalese state and the media.)
In a shift of scene, the other girl is spoken to and urged to join a militant Tamil group: we do not see the speaker. Later, she is shown alone, armed, in a ruined building. While keeping guard, she picks up a stick and draws on the sand a picture of a little house with a mango tree: an unfulfilled wish; an unrealized dream. The sound of gunfire comes close, closer: we conclude it brings her death.
Next we are mutely shown one of the plastic bags, torn open, the young plant and soil exposed. Will it revive, survive, even flourish? The two girls didn’t. Finally, there’s the little boy, walking alone, coming to a point where the road branches off in two different directions, and hesitating. We know neither the significance of the two roads nor the choice the boy will make. The story, like life itself, continues.
It is remarkable that into a short film of barely ten minutes, Pradeepan has concentrated so much significance. The work is all the more eloquent for its brevity and restraint. Mango tree is a fragment, showing just three children falling victim to brutal conflict, but it is a fragment that points to the tragic whole (see Coomaraswamy above) that has befallen Sri Lankan Tamils.
[Mr Pradeepan, born in Sri Lanka in 1981, now lives in exile in Paris. Mango tree was filmed in South India.]
Charles Ponnuthurai Sarvan firstname.lastname@example.org Berlin, December 2008