Saddened by the 'disposable nature' of genocide in contemporary
society, Catherine Filloux's writing explores the concept of survivors'
guilt and how people live after genocide
Photo by: VANDY RATTANA
Playwright Catherine Filloux in Phnom Penh at a rehearsal space for the rock opera Where Elephants Weep.
A playwright with a passion for remembering
Growing up in San Diego within a French
Algerian family, award-winning playwright Catherine Filloux always felt
like an outsider. With French as her first language, writing helped her
to find her own voice in English. After a brief stint as a "very bad"
actress, she turned her attention to writing in earnest. In the late
1980s, Filloux wandered into a Cambodian women's group in the Bronx and
subsequently became obsessed with the "outward political canvass and
the inner personal journeys" of the Cambodian genocide and began
writing plays about the Kingdom. She has since penned Eyes of the
Heart, which is about psychosomatic blindness in Cambodian refugees in
the US, Photographs from S-21 and Silence of God, which is about US
complicity in Cambodia. Most recently, she has written the libretto for
the rock opera Where Elephants Weep, which opens next Friday in Phnom
Penh. All of her work contains a number of recurring themes - human
rights, women's rights, genocide and the concept of survivors' guilt -
as, for her, theatre has the unique potential to help people process
the "horrific experience" of genocide.
When did you first come to Cambodia?
I came to Cambodia for the first time in 2001, so I had been writing about Cambodia and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and various themes in my plays for many years before I came here. But the work that I did with Cambodian refugees in the US held all the trauma of the genocide. I felt like Pol Pot was just around the corner. It didn't make any difference that I wasn't in Cambodia, which was very strange, and of course when I came here it was a life-changing experience.
When and why did you first start working with Cambodian refugees?
I went to a refugee centre in the Bronx, and I began talking to a Cambodian women's group there. I just listened and listened ... I was involved in the process of listening to survivors for many years and was becoming increasingly like a witness to what I was hearing. And then in the 1990s, there was a kind of continuation of refugees arriving from Bosnia and from other genocides like Rwanda, and I felt as if the Cambodian genocide was kind of put off to the side. At that point I thought I can never ever forget what has been told to me. The trust that was given to me was enormous.
How did that listening process feed into the recurring themes throughout your work?
I listened for a long time before I knew what I was going to do. My plays are creations - I make up the stories using creative characters that come from listening. One of the things that was so extraordinary when I would listen is the similarities in certain aspects of the stories, where people went, the overarching concept that ‘had I gone right I would have died, but I went left', and this concept of survivors' guilt and circumstance was pretty staggering to listen to over and over again. So it was a really organic process, and I think ultimately what has come to be interesting and true is that 20 years later I can understand that I was obviously attracted to this as a theme. There was something about it that really kept on obsessing me to understand more.
The other thing is that it has been a personal journey in the sense that I have a family member who has a chronic illness - my husband has multiple sclerosis, and it has been sort of a trajectory on which we have been fighting that disease for the same amount of time as I have been writing about this, and I think the inspiration and the strength that I have received from survivors was parallel in my own journey to understanding how you cope with the unknown - as that is one of the issues with a chronic disease, certainly with MS, that there is no way to know what terrible thing is going to happen next.
Do you have any sense of what fascinated you most about those stories?
Well, of course, the complicity that the US has had. The responsibility we have and the disposable aspect of genocide. Meaning, the fact there is always a new genocide that comes along that is more important.
That led me to writing a play called Lemkin's House, which is about Raphael Lemkin, who [coined] the word genocide. And what I think was so extraordinary about Lemkin is that he saw that genocide repeats itself with biological regularity, and even though for him it was the holocaust - he lost all of his family except for one brother in the holocaust - he did not just stop at the holocaust. He saw genocide as something that happens over and over again. And I think that that has been part of my own journey ... trying to understand the mechanics of the outward political canvass and the inner personal journey that are affected by this.
What are your expectations for theatrical performances of such difficult subjects?
I believe as a playwright that theatre in our contemporary society has a very special role. Film and TV don't do this, but theatre demands that we come together as a community to witness something. I think that the personal engagement that happens when someone sits for two hours and watches real people engage in a play provides the ability for us to imagine solutions and to emphasise in a way that is different than certainly reading a newspaper article or hearing about atrocities through other means.
My plays are very much about memory ... a way to leave a trace of what happened and to make sure that it continues to be remembered.
I remember after Photographs from S-21, which was performed here at the French Cultural Centre, what the play would incite in audiences. One of the questions that some of the people in the audience would ask me is, ‘What are you trying to do?' And I said I wasn't trying to do anything in particular. What did you think I was trying to do? And I think the ability for people to bring to a story whatever interpretation they want to is important in synthesising this kind of horrific experience.
What kind of reactions do you get when these plays are first performed?
[They] differ. If we are talking about an American audience, this is very complex, but I think Americans are lost in their comfort zone, so ... they feel assaulted sometimes by the responsibility they feel at the end of something. They want to know what they can do, which is a fairly natural way to feel but also somewhat ironic to me because that would obviously be a personal decision they would have to make upon reflection. So what we've been doing for many years, and which started with Eyes of the Heart, is - there is a certain amount of outreach I do with my plays. Oftentimes, there are panels after the plays as a way for people to be able to engage after the performance and ask questions and listen to various interpretations, so as to maybe ease some of that sense of not knowing what to do.
Do you see your plays as helping create a collective memory of the KR period in Cambodia?
Absolutely. To me, with Where Elephants Weep, that is exactly what has been going on. My plays are very much about memory and remembering. But on the other hand, for example, Eyes of the Heart is a simple family story with, as a larger canvas, the KR genocide, but is really about how people function, how they function when they have to leave their country, the culture clash. I think the important goal is to use them as a tool for remembering and dealing with issues that are not black and white either. And yes, so as a result, they have been a leaping-off point for discussion and a way to leave a trace of what happened and to make sure that it continues to be remembered.
Where Elephants Weep definitely has that as a function, but it is a more forward-thinking story than anything I have ever written before. The underbelly of the story is the KR regime, but that is not the focus of the story. Some of it does have to do with the years afterwards [the 1980s civil war], how people who survived have to almost reinvent themselves to live in society. I'm someone that's been writing about human rights issues - specifically, in so far as how they relate to women. With Where Elephants Weep [Him] Sophy and I are very interested in creating, looking at the idea of freedom, and how can a society be free and how can people be free and how can women be free.
Why do you write?
That's a great question. I think I came from a family that had a certain amount of conflict in it, that came from a culture clash, and I have been an outsider all my life. It was the way I was able to assert myself - since French was my first language, I found my language through writing English, and I think I was interested in being a playwright. I've always been very interested in the theatre. I was a bad actress before I was a playwright, but I learned a lot from being on stage, and I think that on many levels it has provided - why I write is that it provides a sanity for me. It is extremely precious for me.