Five years ago, Roshini Thinakaran, 31, tagged along with a friend going into war-torn Baghdad. “It was crazy,” she says now. But she has always loved to explore.
What was supposed to be a one-month trip lasted 15 months and led to her first feature documentary. What Was Promised, to be shown at the National Geographic Society All Roads Film Festival October 2 through 5, looks at the difficulties of women recruited to join the Iraqi police and military.
The topic came naturally to Thinakaran, whose family fled a civil war in Sri Lanka. Thinakaran and her mother eventually settled in Gaithersburg, where an aunt lived. Her father, an engineer, followed.
She studied communications at George Mason University. The Iraq trip ignited her wanderlust; she spent five years traveling to war zones talking to women. “Because I am a woman who had been in a war zone, I could relate to what they were saying,” she says. “They are always in survival mode—more worried about pragmatic things and less concerned with politics.”
In 2006 Thinakaran landed in Liberia to capture on film the excitement around the election of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the country’s first female leader. The 31⁄2-minute short—her first stab at filmmaking—earned her a spot in the National Geographic Society’s Emerging Explorers Program and a $10,000 grant.
She used the money to go back to Iraq and turn her earlier work into a documentary. She now sees filmmaking as the best way to help people in war zones.
Says Thinakaran: “I like the idea of giving women a voice.”