Filmmaker on the Battleground

Home, for Roshini Thinakaran, is where the hard is

Home, for Roshini Thinakaran, is where the hard is

By Renee Sklarew

Roshini Thinakaran
Photography by Jonathan Timmes

Walking the streets of Kuwait City never felt safe. Roshini Thinakaran was working for a film company, and in the hotel where she was staying she learned that housekeepers were violently attacked. She sensed the mistrust among natives toward foreigners. Despite the beauty of the desert, she couldn’t wait to leave.

In 2004 she was working in Baghdad. She and her colleagues lived in a house that required Iraqi security guards positioned on the roof and at every door, at a time when many foreigners were being taken hostage for money. One morning, after emerging from the shower, Thinakaran heard a bang and dove into a closet, until remembering that she should get on the ground. One of her colleagues came and dragged her out, and they crawled to a corner. Huddled together on the floor, the gun battle lasted for 25 minutes. She thought she would be taken hostage or killed on the spot. Finally, American soldiers arrived and overwhelmed the intruders, but one guard was shot dead and others wounded. They wouldn’t let her see the body. Instead she gathered up all belongings and moved to the Green Zone.

Driving through the streets of Monrovia at midnight, Thinakaran was horrified to see children huddling under street lamps with their books, trying to do homework. There is no electricity in 95 percent of Liberian households. A few people have generators, but most students survive selling chewing gum on the streets late into the night, then trying to finish the work they have for school. “It shouldn’t happen in this day and age. Things should be better,” she insists.

These are some of the sobering stories Thinakaran, 31, shares at the L Street Borders bookstore located across from her Washington, D.C., production studio, Ventano, where she recently finished editing her third documentary. Breathless, her long hair flying, she arrives with no coat or purse despite the deep chill, proving time and again that this filmmaker is impervious to her physical environment.

Roshini Thinakaran
Photography by Seth Freeman

Film and Fortitude
Born in Sri Lanka, Thinakaran left her homeland at age 7 to flee the civil war. Her family struggled after immigrating to the United States, and her parents’ marriage did not survive the stress. Until she moved in with her mother in Fairfax to attend George Mason University, she and her brother lived with her father. “He understands me better than anyone,” she says fondly.

After graduation, her wanderlust first drew her to the Middle East and then in 2005 to Africa, where she worked in various media assistant jobs. Eventually, she decided on her own to film the story of the first female African president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who serves as the current president of Liberia. Thinakaran convinced Sirleaf’s administration to give her access, funded the project herself, and then had just enough film to make a short documentary. This one-minute film about the humanitarian leader gained the attention of National Geographic, whose Emerging Explorers scholarship program recognizes via a secretive selection process youthful entrepreneurs and creative people who help to bring global understanding to the world, or uniquely gifted and inspiring adventurers, scientists, photographers and storytellers who are making significant contributions to world knowledge. Thinakaran was one of only seven people to receive the scholarship in 2007, and $10,000 to assist with her research, which she used to produce her most recent documentary.

Thinakaran also used her own money, along with independently raised additional funds, to finance the most recent film, “What was promised.” It focuses on Iraqi women recruited and trained by the American military to join the Iraqi security forces. The film shows the struggles that female Iraqi soldiers encountered as they tried to mainstream into a male-dominated world. Although it has been shown at a number of American film festivals, the film hasn’t been picked up by American television. Thinakaran aggressively seeks meetings with television executives in the pursuit to change that.

For the project Thinakaran gained access to American brigadier generals who spoke candidly about unjust treatment of women who had volunteered to serve in the Iraqi police or military. When the American armed forces opened its doors to welcome female volunteers, they never expected to find male Iraqi soldiers so opposed to this plan. The female Iraqi soldiers experienced abuse, sexual harassment, demotion, and there is evidence of one female soldier being raped when male Iraqi soldiers locked her in a jail cell with a prisoner.

In the fiercely competitive world of documentary filmmaking, this story is a tough sell. But Thinakaran has recorded first-person accounts by female Iraqi soldiers, as well as American military leaders who trained the female recruits, and is committed to sharing the stories of female struggles to persevere in these countries torn with discord and discrimination. She sadly discusses how Iraq has changed since 2003. “Now there are checkpoints and barriers everywhere. The women have changed, too,” Thinakaran describes. “They are no longer optimistic about the future. They thought things would change [after the fall of Saddam Hussein]. They’ve experienced so much trauma.” After having left Baghdad this last time, the filmmaker noticed that now even she jumps whenever she hears loud noises.

As part of her research for a documentary on Afghani women, Thinakaran interviewed female media professionals in October 2006, about pursuing careers under threat.
As part of her research for a documentary on Afghani women, Thinakaran interviewed female media professionals in October 2006, about pursuing careers under threat. Photography by Safia Saf

Draw of the War-torn
Thinakaran has always had a burning desire to travel the world, but “not to the safe places.” She chuckles, “I get bored easily.” She’s drawn to cities like Beirut, Kabul and Kurdistan, where she strives to share the stories of women living and surviving. To carry out that goal, Thinakaran founded Women at the Forefront, a for-profit organization to showcase global issues facing women and minority communities. Now she’s turned her attention to television and an interactive website,, that views conflict through the eyes of her female subjects. One video on the site opens on top of a bombed-out building in Baghdad. She and her crew are filming while mortar shells explode so nearby that they are forced to race below to escape injury.

Thinakaran has lived overseas for months and years at a time; Lebanon, Liberia and onto Iraq to film her most recent documentary. She says her family members living in Northern Virginia have learned not to worry about her. “They know I can take care of myself. In fact, they worry more about me here than when I’m traveling. They know I’m very careful when I’m working,” Thinakaran says.

Thinakaran even had access to Saddam Hussein’s palace after the initial “shock and awe” of the American attack on Baghdad. She says she was sickened, watching the stealing that went on there. Months later, she followed the dictator’s path again, finding herself slumbering in an underground bunker like the one in which Hussein was discovered. Her roommates in the bunker consisted of five American soldiers and four Iraqis. All men. “I am a girly girl, but definitely not high maintenance,” she laughs, and recounts driving a mile to a military trailer just to use the bathroom.

Friends have difficulty tracking her down because she doesn’t check emails regularly. Despite being thoroughly immersed in a new culture, she’s the one finding camera crews, obtaining living arrangements and organizing the interviews. She calls the job “The Fixer.” She describes her commitment to nurturing the economies overseas. “I always use local resources and equipment in the country in which I’m filming.”

What about a personal life? “There’s no significant other, because how could I leave for eight months and try to maintain a relationship? It wouldn’t be fair.” Thinakaran scoffs, “And war romances never last.”

She has unusual access to high-level government and military officials. She says she believes it’s probably because she’s so tiny and unimposing. “No one fears me. They know they can trust me to tell their story fairly, and when I promise something I keep my word.” Thinakaran had offers from foreign distributors to air her most recent film on the U.S. military. She declined because she had promised the Iraqi female soldiers and the U.S. Army leaders that appeared in her documentary that it would be viewed by Americans first. Thinakaran won’t betray her subjects’ confidences, even at her own expense.

TOP: In attendance at the National Geographic Society’s Women’s Empowerment Conference, held last May in D.C. BOTTOM: On a pre-production scout in Baghdad in 2007, Thinakaran arranged all logistics before the filming of “What Was Promised.”
TOP: In attendance at the National Geographic Society’s Women’s Empowerment Conference, held last May in D.C. BOTTOM: On a pre-production scout in Baghdad in 2007, Thinakaran arranged all logistics before the filming of “What Was Promised.” Photography by Seth Freeman and Ryan Lobo (bottom)

Sacrifice and Reward
What’s next? Thinakaran plans to attend a graduate program at Georgetown University, and travel further. She hopes to eventually work with female survivors of conflicts in her native land, Sri Lanka. Does anyone haunt her? She answers, “I’ve seen very strong women. I don’t pity them.”

Thinakaran has been successful in gaining the trust of and access to heads of state like president Sirleaf and U.S. Army generals because of the strong network of people she’s befriended over the years. She believes they see her as unthreatening, recognize her curiosity, and know her purpose is to help as much as she can. While Thinakaran didn’t set out to make documentaries, she admits a passion for sharing a story. “Relationships with people are what matters to me. It’s not about the photo shoots or walking down a red carpet. What appeals to me is telling these stories.”

She told National Geographic audiences that her goal is to “shine the spotlight on women who are making real strides in conflict-ridden countries” and ultimately help build schools there, too.

Thinakaran has a striking beauty that initially draws attention, but her drive, talent and personal integrity are what put her on the pages. When advising aspiring filmmakers, she warns about the sacrifices involved in choosing this career path. She has devoted years and all her personal resources to complete these projects. Thinakaran frankly discourages following her path: “I don’t own a car or house, and there’s a reason I don’t have kids or a husband. You need to be willing to say goodbye for months. You need to realize that when your friends are going out, you either have to work or can’t afford to join in.” She sighs, “You probably won’t have the luxuries you’re accustomed to. You might also get killed.”


(September 2009)