Review: ‘No More Tears, Sister’

Aspects of politics, history and ethnicity are examined in "No More Tears, Sister," a deftly made study of one woman and her family -- especially the tough-minded sisters who survived her death. A doctor, teacher and human-rights activist, Rajani Thiranagama sacrificed everything to improve the lives of ordinary Sri Lankans. She was assassinated in 1989, at age 35.

A correction was made to this review on June 9, 2005.

Aspects of politics, history and ethnicity are examined in “No More Tears, Sister,” a deftly made study of one woman and her family — especially the tough-minded sisters who survived her death. A doctor, teacher and human-rights activist, Rajani Thiranagama sacrificed everything to improve the lives of ordinary Sri Lankans. She was assassinated in 1989, at age 35. Security was tight at pic’s Hot Docs fest preem in Toronto, as ethnic tensions in the island nation have spilled into emigrant conclaves. But pic, mostly in English, is likely to have auds weeping at activist fests and in pubcasting circles.

Archival footage of ’60s America and colonial life in India and Sri Lanka is mixed with subtle recreations of Rajani’s exemplary life, with daughter Sharika standing in for her late mom. The rest of the pic featureswell-shot interviews with Rajani’s good-natured parents and articulate sisters, who help limn the tale of a girl growing up in an open-minded Christian Tamil family in the mixed coastal town of Jaffna.

A brilliant student, Rajani studied in Colombo and in Vietnam-era States, where she got radicalized toward dreams of Mao and Che. Back home, she became a noted surgeon and medical teacher, while quietly supporting the growing Tamil Tiger insurgency against the dominant Sinhalese Buddhists, whose government excluded Tamils and whipped up occasional pogroms against them. At same time, she pursued romance with (and secretly married) Dayapala Thiranagama, a working-class intellectual and Sinhalese rebel who favored a multiethnic, socialistic state — something that had both sides after his scalp.

Rajani grew disenchanted with the Tigers’ violent methods (at least 25,000 young people have been killed during their uprising), as well as their lack of revolutionary knowledge, and turned her attentions to helping people in general. According to eyewitnesses, she singlehandedly stood up to the Indian Army when it threatened to sack her university’s medical department. She also angered Tamils by decrying Tigers’ alleged use of rape as a tool for disempowering women and recruiting them as fighters and suicide bombers, leading to her eventual murder.

Potent pic reps a textbook example of how legit political movements can turn into terror platforms and ethnic cults with bystanders afraid to stand up even for meager rights. Long conversations between her ex and talkative sister Nirmala Rajasingam, once a political prisoner famously freed by the Tigers, feel stiff and stagy, briefly subverting the main story. Narration from “English Patient” scribe Michael Ondaatje adds an elegant, unobtrusive touch to this overall stylish docu, which comes in at just the right length.

No More Tears, Sister

Canada

Production

A National Film Board production, with assistance from the Sri Lankan Film Development Corp. (International sales: NFB, Montreal.) Produced by Pierre Lapointe. Executive producer, Sally Bochner. Directed, written by Helene Klodawsky.

Crew

Camera (color), Francoise Dagenais; editor, Patricia Tassinari; music, Bertrand Chenier; art director, Lal Haridrinatha; sound (Dolby), Sylvain Vari; sound designer, Louis Dupire; line producer, Johanne Bergeron; assistant director, Elmo Halliday. Reviewed at Hot Docs Festival, Toronto, April 26, 2005. (Also in Human Rights, Seattle film festivals.) Running time: 80 MIN.

With

Nirmala Rajasingam, Sharika Thiranagama, Dayapala Thiranagama.
Narrator: Michael Ondaatje. (English, Tamil dialogue)
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