A review on “Breaking the Silence” by Jennifer Ka, Document Center of Cambodia

Magazine: Searching for the Truth, 2010

Breaking the Silence at the Cambodian Youth Arts Festival 2010
By Jennifer Ka
Volunteer, Documentation Center of Cambodia

…this was wonderful, haunting – I left in tears, and I am sure it had an even greater impact on those people who lived through those terrible times.
Sharon Wilkinson, an audience

I was fortunate enough to attend the Cambodian Youth Festival before I left the country. The creative arts are still reviving itself, and as it grows the independent spirits of the Cambodian people is as well. Festivities and gatherings such as these celebrate and recognize the importance of the arts in our culture. The youth then have the chance explore the arts of the past and the present to develop their own creation for the future. The elderly and youth finally unite and share this needed experience together. I became entangled in this experience with them as a foreigner, part of the younger generation, and a Cambodian.

Breaking the Silence is a play about the past. It reopens the past through a series of stories from different people during the Khmer Rouge. All of them have a story; all of them have a voice. Four women act out the portrayal of the lives of multiple people. There is no more hiding, the truth is set free. Finally his or her stories are shared; finally there is someone to listen.

The creation of this play in Cambodia is of great importance to society because it allows the door of awareness to open up the viral past to be seen again or for the first time. The older generation of Cambodians has restrained their emotions with their choice to remain quiet to forget their own past. The younger generations of Cambodians who are children of the victims in result do not hear the stories from the parents and in consequence do not understand them. In the end, they both become disconnected with one another due to their fears. Both generations continue on with their lives with this tension unable to look forward because they are never able to look backwards. Both are stuck and unable to move with a clear path. The older generations must face their past so the younger generations can move toward their future. They need one another. The young must be able to support their parents as they undergo such trauma and the old must be able to guide their children as they experience and learn. However silence keeps them apart, so they must break it.

Breaking the Silence becomes a type of challenge, an obstacle for the people of Cambodia because it causes change. It causes the older audience to think of their past and look within themselves. They begin to feel what they felt before. The younger audience begin to learn about the tragic past of their parents and feel a sense of understanding toward their loved ones. They possibly become curious and have a sudden urge to learn more.

I interviewed two of the actors beforehand and asked them a few questions about their perspectives. Kauv Sotheary, 45, believes this play will allow the survivors to recall their experiences during the Khmer Rouge and open up the idea of forgiveness. It allows the perpetrators and victims to communicate, and possibly allow the end to a prolonged dispute among them. She focuses on the reconciliation of a divided people. Pok Sovanna, 47, also believes the play will help the elderly remember the past and can also be used as a sense of proof toward the younger generation of the reality of the Khmer Rouge. She also thinks that the play will recall memories as if it happened yesterday allowing further exchange and sharing of stories with one another. Both emphasize on the importance of remembering the past and never forgetting. Both want the younger generations to believe. I personally admire the actors for their courage. All of them have direct connections to the play because they themselves were victims. They choose to express their emotions through acting while also helping their people.

I also had the chance to interview an elderly woman Vong Metry, 56, who is a fine arts teacher for orphans. I asked her questions before the show and after to witness her reactions. She never watched the play, but she believes that performances like these plays an important role in telling the young generations about their experience in the Khmer Rouge. The play may teach some lessons to educate the youth because it seems to be a difficult task for the elderly people. After the show, she said she did not want to experience or see history repeat itself. She wants to forget everything from the past. I could tell it was hard for her to express her true feelings because she was unable to talk about her own experience. However, she is working hard in making a better future for generations to come. She says she is still alive and has a strong passion in bringing the culture back. She wants to preserve what was lost and wants the younger generations to care for our culture later on.

As a spectator in the audience, I would like to offer my view on Breaking the Silence. I had watched the performance previously on video, but this would be my first time live. The setting was simple yet ambiguous. There was colorful rugs on the floors, a white background with painted grass, and no other props but a few chairs. The setting was not located in any specific place, which allows more imagination for different kinds of expression. The whole structure of the play was very creative and well though out. The play has many subtle concepts that take much interpretation. This can also be a negative in terms of the audience. A less educated audience may not be able to completely decipher the meaning of the play. The lost of touch of reality with the use of imaginary intellect can be less susceptible to a Cambodian audience.

The incorporation of seven tales during the Pol Pot Regime and the affect of the character now offer a wide range of situations that most of the older audiences can identify with.  It gives realistic stories of what the Cambodian people are dealing with and gives them a chance to be leveled with their own past. The emotional spectrum is able to stretch far and wide from guilt, shame, sadness, anger, hate and also hope. Some are able to find forgiveness and some are not.

However, the use of many stories can also make the mood less intimate and personal. The constant change and transitions cause the audience to distance themselves away from the emotions the play is trying to evoke. The audiences have a choice to either identify with the emotions of the characters or not to. The amount of time spent on developing the multiple characters are limited and cannot be fully developed. So most of the viewers cannot keep up with the emotions presented and take the time to perceive it all. I myself like to have more focus and depth on each of the characters to understand their motives and wants. In the end, I was not able to understand the pain of each of the characters completely. I am also part of the younger generation and may see it differently, but I think the play is better for an older educated audience. I know the victims of the Khmer Rouge want the younger generations to see the past through these means of expression so it is important to capture the attention of the youth. They want them to know, see and believe the truth.

The thoughts and conflicts are evident throughout the play because of the monologues or dialogues they have with the other characters. The monkey also plays an important role in expression for the actors. The monkey dressed in white serves different purposes as part of the unconscious, as a mediator, or as a re-enactment of the past. The monkey’s ability to transform itself for whatever reason also allows room for imagination as well as comic relief. The monkey makes funny faces, scratches itself constantly, and acts out of the ordinary. These techniques lighten the mood of an emotionally heavy play. It also helps attract younger audiences and keep them interested. However, the monkey can also be a distraction from the significance of the stories. The actors dialogue should be the most captivating and bold so the audience can truly listen to what they have to say.

As of now, I would have enjoyed more of a realistic approach. It is easily understandable and easily relatable. The Khmer Rouge was a period of raw terror that should be portrayed on stage. So I feel Cambodia needs to be shown reality. The people are searching to learn and find answers to their own questions in life. Using a realistic approach can be more straightforward and genuine offering a step toward an enlightened path.

However, the production of Breaking the Silence was needed. It made the presence of the past become a reality. Now people will think about their past and possibly learn to let go. They may want to share their own stories because the strong forces of the past are now open to the public. I feel like the next step is to take a different approach. A story filled with emotion through the more actions and humanly expressions. I want people to know it is okay to show your emotions, it is okay to show how you feel, it is okay to be who you are. Breaking the Silence illustrates the present state of the country and the current battles they are facing. I want to help them find a way to go.

The development of plays, writing, and the arts are crucial for the future. It exposes the audience to the unknown world. A play brings stories to life and takes them into a dream like state. They are part of our world for a moment and we must be able to convey our message to take back with them to the real world. Sharon Wilkinson who was part of the audience believed this play was “wonderful, haunting” and she left in tears. She believed “it had a greater impact on those people who lived through those terrible times” and is happy the silence is broken. The world is no longer unaware of the atrocities of the past. One left a changed person and her new found knowledge and awareness will follow her to cause more change. Good change.

Breaking the Silence was very truthful. The stories were real and were based on the stories of real people. They told the stories as it was and did not change it with a great happy ending. I guess that is what I searched for the most. I love to see happy endings because reality is too cruel towards us. But the truth is reality is just the way it is.  If we are hurt or in pain it does not stop to ask us if we are okay. Life is all a process, a process of events with consequences. Things happen, things don’t. Life continues to flow like a river and cannot be stopped. Now that the silence is broken, it is time for the next step in our process. I am not sure what it is but I know the flow of life will take me there.

Independently Searching for the Truth since 1997.

“…a society cannot know itself if it does not have an accurate memory of its own history.”

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