Accepted paper:

Biographical desires


Sharika Thiranagama (Stanford)

Paper short abstract:

This paper takes the Sri Lankan civil war and the desires of ordinary people to stage their biographies in particular frames. It reflects on these desires as they emerged in two settings, filming a war film on site in 2004, and, the 2011 post war reconciliation commission.

Paper long abstract:

Six months after 2004 fieldwork on Sri Lanka's civil war with minority Tamils and Muslims, I returned to my fieldwork sites as an actor accompanying a Canadian and Sinhalese film crew for a biographical film about my family. The film crew informed the crowds watching the shoots that we were filming a wildlife or travel documentary. Despite this misinformation, the crowds conducted running commentaries in Tamil accurately reconstructing the films narratives, the scenes immediately recognizable to them as those from a war they were living through. "This is a film about Jaffna isn't it" two young Muslim men asked me after one shot of the Palmyra tree the archetypal symbol of northern Jaffna, "why don't you make a film about our story? What about what happened to us?" I had already spent months of my fieldwork documenting precisely that, but I realized that my desire to capture these biographies anthropologically was matched by the greater desires by my interlocutors to tell their stories in stagings that mattered more to them. After the war ended, the state-sponsored Lessons Learnt Reconciliation Commission held countrywide hearings in 2011. The hearings and process was farcical, yet hundreds of Tamils and Muslims turned up. Rather than reconciliation between ethnic communities, minorities imagined these hearings as the possibility to communicate with the state that had also violated their rights. This paper reflects on these biographical desires and the frames by which stories can be made meaningful, frames which ethnography can often only provide commentaries on.

panel P07
Reason and passion: the parallel worlds of ethnography and biography