Three students claim to be the first foreign journalists to have entered warzone but say lack of experience left them ill-equipped to cope emotionally or professionally
 
Gunaratne and Lindvall interview a military officialGuy Gunaratne and Heidi Lindvall interview a military official

In June 2009, three student filmmakers gained unexpected access to the aftermath of the Sri Lankan military's defeat of separatist group the Tamil Tigers.

At the time, the situation in Sri Lanka was dominating the international news agenda, but independent media were banned from the frontlines. With the media struggling to report from the ground, the students had a unique opportunity to document events in the wake of the 30-year battle.

But it was a dangerous situation for journalists. In January 2009, newspaper editor Lasantha Wickremetunge, who was openly critical of the government, had been murdered. In May, at the end of the war, domestic journalists risked detention and harassment.

Once inside Sri Lanka, students Guy Gunaratne, Heidi Lindvall and Phil Panchenko, who believe they were the first foreign journalists to cross over into the warzone, saw far more than they had anticipated.

They saw the camps for internally displaced persons (IDP camps), referred to as concentration camps by some of the British media, and walked in the final battlegrounds at Mullaitivu and Chalai.

They soon filled their bags with journalistic gold, capturing everything they saw on about 30 DV tapes and taking over 4,000 photographs.

It was the "opportunity of a lifetime" to travel further than the BBC, Channel 4 and CNN had managed, says Gunaratne, who was studying for an MA in current affairs television at City University London.

But the experience has transformed his professional ambitions: "As an eager journalism student I had always dreamed of being a war correspondent," he tells Journalism.co.uk.

"However, our experiences quickly became a baptism of fire as none of us were really equipped to deal with the situation of pointing cameras in the faces of very vulnerable people, both emotionally or professionally.

"It also dawned on us that any real truth that could have been salavaged from what had happened during those final months of the war was lost since it had essentially become a war without witness.

"We found that we were the first to get there but even we were too late.

"Out the other end, any feeling I had had of being a journalist I left far behind the barbed wire of those camps and the acres of rubble."

Gunaratne has not, however, abandoned media entirely. Along with Lindvall and Panchenko, he has formed an independent film production company, Codoc Productions, which is working with Amnesty International and Warchild to highlight issues they feel "are not being given proper exposure in today tabloid culture." They have just flown to Uganda to begin filming a documentary on the re-integration of child soldiers in Northern Uganda.

Meanwhile, they are in post-production on a self-funded 88 minute feature film about the entire Sri Lankan experience [trailer below]. The film, 'The Truth That Wasn't There' is "a personal take on the destructive qualities war has on a traumatized people," Gunaratne describes.

Despite the exclusive access the students gained they did not sell any of their footage to mainstream media outlets.

"Our intention was always to use our footage for a documentary, knowing that the exclusivity and nature of our footage would be our strongest selling point commercially," says Gunaratne.

"At the same time we did approach various documentary companies and pitched story ideas on our return. Most were hesitant seeing as they would ostensibly be placing their trust in students who had no track record. At most it was a 'well done for getting this far' but little else."

Instead they have shared material via alternative avenues: on a citizen journalism website, and the team has created a Facebook group and a YouTube channel. A three-part blog narrative tells the story of gaining access, the experience of the camps and then the destruction they encountered further north.

The documentary and accompanying online media give Gunaratne the space to explore what he calls the "multiple narratives", the conflict between media and government and LTTE (Tamil Tigers) as the war ended.

He is bothered by the way in which governments "use the most vulnerable to construct a narrative of their choosing", as well as "the way war reporters resort to doing the same to counter the other".

"The government felt that the international media had an agenda that could hurt the war effort and the media felt the lack of access could be read as an admission of guilt and cover up. A huge amount of international pressure put the government on the defensive and in turn there was a lot of misinformation and rumor passed off as fact.

"The material we were lucky enough to capture with this film reveals if anything, the world we live in now where only the perception of truth, and not the truth itself that matters, especially when it comes to war."

It seems to be the snapshot nature of war reporting that bothers Gunaratne, rather than cameras per se.

"There was something strangely captivating about 'being there', recording history as it happened, which I am sure many young journalists share.

"What I personally was not ready for however was the responsibility that comes with that. You will only realise that when you point a camera in a person's face, record what you can and then move on from them, their lives and that situation.

"How much of yourself are you imbuing into what you report? It would have been incredibly easy for any of us to crouch down snap a picture of a child screaming with a big of barbed wire in the foreground and sell this as what a Sri Lankan IDP camp looks like.

"But even if that child and that barbed wire existed - how much of that is reality and how much of that is your own framing of the situation? And in the end - who does is help? Your career perhaps, but beyond that? That is what I was uncomfortable with."

Despite his reservations about telling the story, Gunaratne and his team will make the film:

"We still believe the truth matters, and stories matter but there are far more grey areas than black or white in the world today - that's why documentary film is the medium in which we've all chosen to tell our stories through.

"It allows a far greater breadth and space than anything that can be achieved through war reportage on its own.

"And just maybe it'll have a longer lasting, positive effect on conflict resolution and peace building at the same time."

Slide show of photos, taken during the filming of 'The Truth That Wasn't There'. Courtesy of Guy Gunaratne, Heidi Lindvall and Phil Panchenko. The team can be contacted via: info [at] codocproductions.com.

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