“The Boys’ Club” -Anomaa Rajakaruna’s Fight To Keep Telling Stories
By Sakeena Razick
Everystory Sri Lanka presents the first thirty stories from our ongoing work to create a compendium of Sri Lankan women’s stories — featuring those whose lives, work, and experiences have shaped and are shaped by Sri Lanka’s social, political, and cultural contexts.
From the Stories of Sri Lankan Women Archive —Anomaa Rajakaruna
Illustration by Rashmi Natasha
Growing up in the village of Malamulla in Panadura, Anomaa Rajakaruna developed an early love for storytelling. She would stand on chairs at family gatherings and create plot twists into well-established children’s stories. She would also make her way into small teacher-student groups at a very young age, insisting that she be included wherever a story was being told.
She first began writing and publishing while in school and soon moved to work in film. She created her first short film at the age of 17, using expired film stock and saved up pocket money. The film centered around Sri Lanka’s civil war and focused on one woman and her different relationships with two men. However, Anomaa experienced one of her first challenges, professionally, when one (of the only available) broadcasting corporations refused to air a film of such complexity. She was told to focus on “children’s stories” instead. “I was actually crying inside when I went home,” she says, recalling a lonely bus ride from Colombo back home to Panadura, clad in her school uniform. However, undeterred, she pushed back until a second network agreed to air the short film. Her first success led to many more as she soon became renowned for her ability to tell stories across various mediums.
Now known for her filmmaking, writing, poetry, and photography, she has traveled extensively, documenting and telling the stories of many, with a particular focus on women and girls’ lives. Anomaa was always fascinated with people and events around her, from the achcharu seller in front of her school, the light filtering when taking a photo, or the moving of a pottery wheel in dips and turns. She explains her work as being influenced by the stories and lives around her and her own experiences: “I think at a very early age, I realized that girls are treated differently than the boys in the family. Because there are always instructions: how you should speak, how you do this, what to learn, and where to go, and with whom you should go, and all that. And then, the opportunities, the voice, the freedom…at an early age, I realized that others took decisions on behalf of me. As a girl child, what I felt was reflected in my short stories, in my poetry. And then, later on, in my films.”
Anomaa’s career rests on her perseverance and the ‘fighter’ within. With little guidance and space for upcoming filmmakers, she would confront course administrators who refused her participation simply because she was a girl unable to “lift the heavy equipment.” She would seek opportunities to develop her craft and to learn more about scriptwriting and film. From early days in her career, she had to struggle to be heard and accepted in the male-dominated industry, or what she describes as, at the time, very much “the boys’ club.”
Her films look deep into existing relationships among people and discuss unconventional topics. For instance, one of her early short films in 1986, ‘Senehasaka Kathawak,’ revolves around an upper-middle-class mother who experiences a stillbirth, while her short film ‘Amma Kenek’ is set during Sri Lanka’s 1983 ethnic riots. However, soon, she began facing censorship from corporations (that did not have a proper review board at the time). Several of her short films were banned for many years, and petitions were made against them. Anomaa explains the continuous censorship she faced, “I have gone through all sorts of [censorship], and I was the first creator in this country who [at that time] faced direct censorship from the President’s office. So my film which I made about the 83’ [riots] was banned, it was stopped,” she says.
Discouraged by the successive restrictions, Anomaa then moved to create documentaries. In 2000, she made a documentary called ‘Yet Another Five’ about five rape victims in Sri Lanka, and her documentary ‘The Other Woman’ discussed women and the armed conflict in the country. However, Anomaa’s work is not limited to film, and she is a reputed photographer. One of her most acclaimed pieces is ‘Women Sharing Life, Building Peace,’ which showcases women of different ethnicities in Sri Lanka sharing water from pots, mainly when the Tamil and Sinhala communities were at war with each other.
Rajakaruna is well known for her rights-based approach to her work and has won numerous awards in recognition. In 2002 she received ‘The Bunka Award’ for notable achievement in photography by the Japan-Sri Lanka Friendship Cultural Fund; in 2005 the National Honours ‘Kalasuri’ by the President of Sri Lanka; in 2012 the ‘Chevalier de l’ordre national du Mérite’ (Knight of the National Order of Merit) by the President of France; and in 2019 the ‘Officier, Ordre des Arts et des Lettres’ (Officer in the Order of Arts and Letters) by the Minister of Culture in France. She has also received several national and international awards for her films, from Russia and Finland, to name a few. Anomaa has served as a juror at over 20 national and 25 international film festivals. Currently, she is the Festival Director of the Jaffna International Cinema Festival.
She is also the founder of Agenda 14, a production company designed to create a platform for young and upcoming filmmakers in Sri Lanka. She aims to provide a space for filmmakers and provide opportunities in this field, which she struggled to receive during her early days in the industry. For Anomaa, working with young people and seeing their work develop and take form has been a continuous source of inspiration. “Because I don’t believe in changing something overnight, I believe in changing one by one, a little by little, step by step,” she says.
Anomaa Rajakaruna talks about a series of strong and supportive people, from teachers to senior actors and directors, who inspired her to keep moving forward. She fondly thinks back to her childhood, and holds out a red deer till made out of clay. This “Kelani Muwa” till is meant to collect coins and be broken at the end, but has been preserved and kept safe. While Anomaa’s many awards stay boxed up, this proud deer has been by her side since she was a little girl. “When it is on a shelf, it feels like I have a friend,” she laughs and says.
Anomaa is a storyteller who has used art to question and understand the society she lives in, which has in turn has shaped her work. She states that film is a way of expressing and hopes that the making of films continues to adapt across different situations and topics. “Sometimes, you know, changing a few minds is more important than winning the golden award. Film is a tool that can change lives, change attitudes and [can be used] as a tool across borders.”
(Sakeena Razick is a writer and feminist. She works as a Communications Associate at a feminist human rights organization. Previously she has worked in research and media.)
Reference Links and Further Reading
Anomaa Rajakaruna, Arts Council of Sri Lanka, http://www.artscouncil.lk/anomaa-rajakaruna/.
Sri Lankan Sociologist Pursues Peace, Suratha (taken from Shanghai Daily), 27 January 2017, http://suratha.lk/sri-lankan-sociologist-pursues-peace/.
Daring Journey on Documentary, Sunday Times, 12 June 2011, http://www.sundaytimes.lk/110612/Magazine/sundaytimestvtimes_5.html.
Gearing Platforms for Collective Narratives, ARTRA, 24 April 2018, https://www.artra.lk/gearing-platforms-for-collective-narratives-2.
Anomaa Rajakaruna joins international jury: International Film Festival of Kerala, The Sunday Morning, 16 February 2021, https://www.themorning.lk/anomaa-rajakaruna-joins-international-jury-international-film-festival-of-kerala/.
Anomaa on filmmaking — then and now: ‘For all the films I couldn’t make, I wrote poetry’, The Sunday Morning, 21 February 2021, https://www.themorning.lk/anomaa-on-filmmaking-then-and-now-for-all-the-films-i-couldnt-make-i-wrote-poetry/.
Notes This article is pending support to be translated into Sinhala and Tamil. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to support us with translations or if you have any questions.