If you have visited Ishyo Arts Center in the last two weeks, you are aware that Ishyo Theater has been lively with the stage designer, Fer, constructing a set, the dramatic director, Nan, instructing Rwandan and Cambodian actors and actresses, and the director, Anna Marie, directing a production which promises to be a moving play and historical collaboration. Fer, Nan, and Anna Marie come to Rwanda at the behest of Rwandan artists who caught wind of the acclaimed play, Breaking the Silence, and its success in Cambodia. Their play is being adapted to the Rwandan context, while retaining the Cambodian story, with the addition of two Rwandan actors.
I had the privilege of interviewing Nan, the dramatic director, who affirms that “The play, Breaking the Silence, was one of the very few plays written about genocide and performed in Cambodia. The title refers to the fact that genocide was not dealt with openly ever and hasn’t even been mentioned in the Cambodian school history books until two years ago. The government is not encouraging any discussion, information, or reconciliation in Cambodia at this time.” While in Cambodia, the team discovered the D.C.C., or Documentation Center Cambodia, which is the motor of the reconciliation process in Cambodia.
They provide reconciliation programs, which are primarily supported by foreign funding, as well as a database of substantial documentation pertaining to genocidal events and detected killing fields in Cambodia. Although a Genocide tribunal was started a few years ago, it is a slow process which lacks ample support from the government. To date, only one mastermind of the Cambodian Genocide has been convicted upon confession, while four others await a postponed trial which Nan believes will “probably [be postponed] indefinitely.”
When asked about the impact of the play in Cambodia, where Genocide has remained concealed for the most part, Nan stated, “the play had a huge impact, and revealed what life looks like in Cambodia forty years after Genocide.” Today, there is a big gap between people born after the Genocide and those who lived through it, while parents who lived through the atrocities seldom talk about their experiences during this period. Nan confirms wearily that “there are children who don’t believe it [happened] because there is no confirmation. It is seen more as a means of teaching them a lesson rather than fact.” Breaking the Silence pulled the sheet off of the largely unspoken events and gendered discussion amongst two very different generations.
The play is a significant work that aims to ensure the Genocide in Cambodia will not be forgotten. Those portraying life during and after the Cambodian Genocide share a true and personal story on stage, based on the true account of one of actresses. Appropriately, all of the actors and actresses in Breaking the Silence include women who survived the Genocide as children, and men who were born after the genocide.
This bridging of generations begins at the stage and ends with the audience. Nan shares how, “the play was shown in villages on a mobile stage – audiences never reached before.” Two tours through the provinces in Cambodia ensured exposure of the play to many, while radio broadcasts of the play reached those unreachable by the tour. Talks following the play, facilitated by the D.C.C., included testimonies by survivors, questions from the younger generation, affirmations of the atrocities by former members of the Genocidal regime, and confessions of a sort by the latter brought about by the compelling nature of the play. Nan believes, “Rwandans sought out the play because they identify with the Cambodian victims, their problems, and the similar psychological effects of Genocide.” When asked about the changes made to the play, especially for the Rwandan audience, Nan confirmed, “We have kept to the principle that it should be understandable by everybody, thus we brought in two Rwandese actors to be mediators – partly they translate, partly they bring in questions the audience might have, while explaining the context.”
Annemarie directs with vigor as I sit in the empty seating of Ishyo Arts Centre Theater. She’s graced with white hair, and possesses a serious nature about her work, as is expected from an actress, playwright, and director of her caliber. When asked about her work in Cambodia, she shares, “It was seven years ago when I first visited Cambodia, being asked to rebuild the theatrical life there. All of the intellectuals and artists were [systematically] killed.” The first form of artistic expression restored in Cambodia was the classical form. She affirms with vigor, “It was a real restoration, in the real sense.” Annemarie, an accomplished actress and director in Holland, was the first person in the 1970s to make “poetical political theater.”
At the behest of an American friend who worked for the United Nations and discovered her work in Amsterdam, she conducted a successful workshop in Cambodia, bringing a new direct style of acting to the country different from the stylized form Cambodians are accustomed to. Her first play, entitled Three Years, Eight Months, and Twenty Days, encapsulated the length of the Cambodian Genocide in both title and content. It was a very mellow play, shown only twice in Cambodia and twice at the Singapore Art Festival. She points out that “in Rwanda there were Gacaca Courts, yet Cambodia had nothing.” Her collaboration with Nan has strengthened a longstanding personal friendship and Breaking the Silence is sure to be a success in Rwanda. Anna Marie passionately concludes with a statement about the actors. “There are two languages. They don’t understand each other. I don’t understand them. But we are together.” Indeed, the Rwandan and Cambodian actors don’t understand one another, as it pertains to language, but they interact as if they’ve known each other for a lifetime. Perhaps their connection, being Genocide survivors and the children of survivors, is the reason for this strong bond.
–Joseph Jones , Ishyo Arts Centre
Breaking the Silence will premiere, this Sunday 8th of April, in Kigali at Ishyo Arts Theater.
Produced by Amrita Performing Arts (Cambodia)
Hosted by La Benevolencija (Rwanda)
Directed by Annemarie Prins
Cast: Morm Sokly,Kov Sotheary, Chhon Sina, Pok Sovanna, Ruzibiza Wesley, Niyitegeka Gratien
Composer & Musician: Ieng Sakkona
Singer: Yin Vutha
Dancer : Khiev Sovannrith
Language: Kinyarwanda and Cambodian