/ 15 February 2024

Film explores people power

Sudeepa Dhananjaya
A scene from Sri Lankan Sulochana Peiris’s documentary #GoHomeGota. Photo: Sudeepa Dhananjaya

On 9 July 2022, veteran Sri Lankan filmmaker Sulochana Peiris almost missed the revolution in her hometown of Colombo. 

Her enthralling documentary about the uprising that toppled President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, #GoHomeGota, will be screened in South Africa over the next few weeks.

It tells the story of how one million fed-up people of the small pear-shaped Asian island’s 22-million population, stormed the presidential palace early that morning in the country’s capital.

There were, as the Sky newsreader said, “dramatic scenes” — visuals of jubilant citizens, some waving the colourful national flag with its golden lion, clambering up statues, others splashing in the spectacular pool inside the palace and bouncing on the president’s four-poster bed. 

Rajapaksa, or Gota as he is nicknamed, did not wait around to read the writing on the wall. That morning, before citizens marched on his palace, he fled, resigning a few days later. 

People’s power removed what most Sri Lankans considered to be a corrupt, incompetent former military strongman. It was the culmination of four months of protests by angry citizens, whose lives had been disrupted by fuel and gas shortages; hours-long power outages; crippling queues and an escalation in the cost of living.

“My cameraman was there by 6.30 in the morning,” Peiris tells me via Zoom. “I sent him early because the students were sleeping overnight outside the palace. I wanted him to get visuals of that and whatever was going on.”

Peiris did some chores at home first, “because I didn’t expect him [Rajapaksa] to be gone by 11.30 in the morning, which is what happened”.

With the mass of human traffic from across the country, she had to hitchhike to the palace, “the first time I hitchhiked in my own city”. 

Miraculously, Peiris and her cameraman found each other in the sea of people. It was probably because, as she quips, “if you saw the drone footage, we’re not known to move in such an orderly fashion. We’re very chaotic people, known to jump queues. But that day, they were moving in straight lines.”

Peiris’s journalistic instinct was piqued in March, when the normally apathetic Sri Lankans started widespread protests. “I didn’t have a plan … but I thought, ‘I’ll make a story out of this,’” she tells me. So, she hired a camera person, who filmed “bits and pieces here and there”.

When, on 9 April, people started camping in a park near the palace, Peiris knew she had a movie. “As a documentary-maker, as an experienced journalist, I knew I couldn’t let that moment pass.”

The title, #GoHomeGota, is after the hashtag with which Sri Lankans called on the unpopular Gota to go. Subtitled “The story behind Sri Lanka’s hashtagged protest movement”, it explains how it galvanised people across gender, race, religion and class to take to the streets.

Peiris’s aim with #GoHomeGota is twofold, she tells me: To target university students who study social movements, and she was hoping to get activists to assess what they could have done better and differently.

I write “hoping” because, so far, Peiris has only been able to screen #GoHomeGota in Sri Lanka once, at the Galle Literary Festival last month, and at a few private screenings. 

Although the dictatorial Gota is gone, the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act is being wielded freely by his successors. Peiris still doesn’t “feel free” to show the film publicly. She also needs support from international funders to screen the self-funded it at open forums.

“They tell me, ‘Oh, it’s very good, we really like it, but it’s politically very sensitive,’” she says. “They’re scared of being kicked out of the country.”

The film is attracting international interest. The Centre for Asian Studies in Africa at the University in Pretoria has invited her to show her film at a symposium on democracy.

“I have a keen interest in Sri Lankan politics and the uprising,” says director Alf Gunvald Nilsen. 

“A dear friend in Colombo confirmed it was a great film. I made a mental note and waited for the right opportunity to invite her.”

The film will be screened at the University of Pretoria’s Javett Arts Centre on 16 February; at Wits University on 19 February; the Johannesburg Genocide and Holocaust Centre on 20 February and the University of Cape Town on 26 February.