Helene Klodawsky remembers how her survivor mother and girlfriends stayed up all night, laughing and crying as they recounted their Holocaust experiences over cigarettes and coffee.
"I became consumed with questions about women and war," the 50-year-old Canadian filmmaker said.
Her new documentary, "No More Tears Sister" -- about the struggle of Sri Lankan human rights activist Rajani Thiranagama -- reflects that lifelong obsession.
The film describes how the late Thiranagama, a physician, joined a militant group she believed would help her people amid brutal civil war in the 1980s. She eventually left that group, the Tamil Tigers, when she learned their murders and bombings tormented civilians, especially women. She founded the University Teachers for Human Rights to document and disseminate reports about atrocities perpetuated by Tigers and other factions.
Thiranagama wrote of women's dead bodies -- bloated, beaten, shot, raped and left to rot on the roadside. She helped expose how the Tigers convinced sexually assaulted teenagers, considered tainted by society, to become suicide bombers.
"One day a bullet will silence me," Thiranagama said of her work. Her premonition came true on Sept. 21, 1989 when a Tamil gunman assassinated her in her rural hometown of Jaffna. She was only 35.
"Sister" spotlights the legacy Thiranagama left Sri Lanka: "The idea that militarism does not benefit women, who are often caught in the crossfire between groups of armed men," Klodawsky said.
The fear of such gunmen challenged "Sister's" production in 2003 and 2004. Although Thiranagama's relatives agreed to speak on camera, many potential subjects declined to be interviewed, even in shadow, and even when they lived as far away as Canada. Those who participated did so only when the director agreed to film them far from their homes. Because Kladowsky could not shoot in Thiranagama's Tamil-controlled hometown, she decided to tell the story largely through staged recreations -- a technique often frowned upon by cineastes.
"These flagrantly fictional images push the already elastic limits of documentary almost to the breaking point," The New York Times said of "Sister" in a mixed review.
Other critics praised the film as powerful.
Kodlawsky said her goal was to tell Thiranagama's story vividly; in a way, it reminded her of those late-night discussions over cigarettes and coffee. Her mother's friends often spoke of how Kodlawsky's mother risked death to smuggle food to others at Bergen-Belsen.
"Her courage came in very private, localized ways, not to say it was a lesser courage," Kodlawsky said.
"No More Tears Sister" airs July 11, 10 p.m. on KCET.