"The first time I've cried for 30 years"
Dutch theatre director breaks Cambodia's silence

by Sebastiaan Gottlieb*

Listen to the interview with Youk Chhang

The premiere in Cambodia of the theatre piece Breaking the Silence by Dutch director Annemarie Prins (pictured) has brought many emotions to the surface. It is based on the stories of survivors of the country's infamous Khmer Rouge regime and appears to have achieved its aim: to break the 30-year silence around the genocide committed in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979.

Annemarie PrinsAfter the first performance in Phnom Penh, Youk Chhang, the director of Cambodia's Documentation Centre, could not control his tears. He has been an important driving force behind Prins' work, and believes art can help Cambodians come to terms with the scars left by the Khmer Rouge:

"It's the first time I've cried for 30 years. I've talked to the Khmer Rouge leaders who committed those terrible crimes, but this theatre piece really touched my heart. Cambodia lost its soul back then and part of that soul was rediscovered this evening."

Scarred by the past
Ms Prins cannot think of a better compliment. She wrote the piece last year after interviewing a number of the victims of the Pol Pot regime. A number of characters who have been scarred by the past are presented on stage. One is a woman who no longer talks to her son because she suspects he committed crimes as a Khmer Rouge soldier. Another woman suffers terrible guilt because, as a small child, she stole rice out of the family's emergency supplies. However, two other women are featured who actually had a great time as children in the Khmer Rouge army.

To increase its accessibility, Cambodian song and dance is performed throughout the piece. Ms Prins needed permission from the Cambodian government before the performance could take place:

"Yes, it's a weird country. We had to give a performance for the culture minister and officials in a room at the ministry. That was actually to decide if we'd be allowed to do the piece at all. Luckily, I didn't realise that beforehand. I was also quizzed about the piece and four lines were eventually cut."

She agreed to the censorship of the four lines because she feels it is more important that the piece is seen than that her artistic ego is left unruffled. The lines were literal quotes from Khmer Rouge propaganda songs:

"chop off the heads of our revolution's enemies and slice open their bellies".

Ms Prins says the cut does not affect the thrust of the work. It deals with the problems thrown up by the perpetrators and victims of the genocide having to go on living side by side:

"The victims don't talk about what happened, neither with their children nor really amongst themselves. The perpetrators are also reticent and live in a kind of isolation. It very difficult for people to talk, and that makes the healing process more difficult."

Annemarie Prins en Camboya.jpg
Annemarie Prins gives stage directions during a rehearsal

Artists killed
This is the second show Ms Prins has done in Cambodia. Four years ago, the American Fred Frumberg asked her to lead a theatre workshop. He set up the Amrita organisation 12 years ago to help resurrect Cambodia's performing arts. During Pol Pot's dictatorship, 90 percent of the country's artists were killed, because they failed to fit into the ideal of a largely agrarian society. Ms Prins says that

"Without Fred Frumberg, there would have been no possibility of a performance. There's nobody left in Cambodia to work on theatre; you really need foreigners for that."

Judging from the response to its premiere, Breaking the Silence had a major impact on its audience. A number of people said it should be seen by as many people in Cambodia as possible.

A mobile theatre is being constructed to take the show outside the capital, and tour the countryside.

"For me, that'll be the real premiere,"

says Ms Prins.

"Those are the people I'm aiming at, ordinary Cambodians".

* RNW translation (mw)
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