“I was afraid to even swallow spit inside the court house .Afraid the slightest sound may offend the presiding Magistrate but I am no longer afraid. I will stand up in any court today and speak up without fear,” says Jayantha Manika looking straight into the camera. She is one of the two women who are at the heart of Prasanna Vithanage’s documentary “Silence in the Court” (Usaviya Nihadai) based on true events which attempts to expose the abuse of power in the judiciary at the highest levels. It’s a story about which some would choose to be in denial and society at large may find hard to digest, but Vithanage has used his skills as an acclaimed filmmaker to venture into a new area of filmmaking by documenting the incidents of nearly 20 years ago as told largely by the victims and their families and those who helped expose the despicable behavior of a Magistrate. And in telling the story, Vithanage does not gloss over the sordid affair that for a while caught the attention of the public but died down gradually to be forgotten as the years went by, up until now.
“When I read the book titled Unfinished Struggle by journalist Victor Ivan, it was a bit of a shock that this kind of abuse can happen from within the judiciary. It was also an eye opener about the plight of the hapless people of this country who keep faith in the judiciary only to be betrayed in the worst possible way by the very same system that is meant to protect them,” Vithanage said.
The story is based on the experience of two women living more than 100 kilometers away from Colombo in the rural heartland of the country who were alleged raped by the Magistrate presiding in the two separate cases where their husbands were accused parties. The incidents happen in two different places at two different times but the circumstances behind the incidents are chillingly similar.
“For me it was a quest to get to the bottom of what actually transpired during the period of about one year when both the incidents took place. It was a quest that took me to the remotest areas in the country and brought me face to face with the abused women and gave me the chance to hear from them first-hand about their experiences,” the award winning film maker said.
Kamalawathie, one of the abused women did not wish to talk on camera as her failed quest for justice has left her skeptical about the success of any future action against the man who took undue advantage of her plight when she was desperately finding a way to get her husband released on bail while he was serving time for several petty crimes he had committed.
“Her children are grown up now and she did not want to talk on camera even though she did talk to me about the incident. She does not want what happened with her to taint the life of her children,” he said.
Jayantha Manika, the other lady spoke on camera recounting her experience of nearly 20 ago that continues to haunt her.
Vithanage has reenacted the incidents using amateur actors ensuring that what comes across on the screen is a powerful version of the events as recorded by Journalist Victor Ivan.
“I undertook this as part of the Justice Project which brings together scholars, activists and filmmakers from Bangladesh, Nepal, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. The project is aimed at bringing to the public domain the quest for justice in South Asia,” he said.
Vithanage also learnt that telling a story through a documentary by reenacting true events is a powerful medium. “If this was made as a feature film, it could divert attention from the seriousness of the issue and may not be as powerful as this has turned out to be,” he said.
The story is told through the women, their husbands as well as journalist Victor Ivan and attorney at law Kalyananda Thiranagama who played a vital role in uncovering the truth behind the allegations levelled at the Magistrate.
Public screening of “Silence in the Court” got off to a stormy start after the Colombo District Court issued an interim order preventing the screening of the film in early October after the former Magistrate who is the subject of the documentary petitioned the court. The Court subsequently lifted the order following which it is being shown in theaters across the country.
Vithanage reached out to the former Magistrate as well as another former senior member of the bench who figured in the documentary for their version of events but they did not respond to him. The Magistrate has not been charged for wrong doing in any court of law with neither of the victims lodging a police complaint against him. However a three member Committee of the Judicial Service Commission (JSC), as shown the documentary, inquired into the allegations and found the said Magistrate guilty on three counts including two counts of sexual misconduct involving the two women.
“I did anticipate some kind of legal hurdle and it’s likely more will come my way,” the filmmaker said.
But despite the hurdles, Vithanage is happy that he has opened the doors to a discussion on a topic that many are afraid to initiate.” I hope this documentary will lead to a wider discourse in society whether the judiciary is receptive to the needs of the ordinary people of this country and if justice is meted out equally to all,” he said.6-2016-a4