The story of an acid attack victim told through graphic art

The story of an acid attack victim told through graphic art

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A preliminary illustration of Tat Marina wrapped in bandages for The Beauty Curse. Photograph: Vrej Kassouny


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Eric Pape interviews Ieng Sary with French journalist Francois Gerles, in Cambodia circa 1996-97. Photograph supplied

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Author Eric Pape, now based in Paris. Photograph: Christiane Ingenthron

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Tat Marina, before (R) and after (L) her vicious attack. Photograph supplied

Journalist Eric Pape had spent four years covering the murky political waters of Cambodia in the mid-nineties, but now he stood in front of a cluster of young, eager writers at the prestigious Stanford University. It was 2007 and a  “couple of wacky teachers” had founded a graphic novel writing class, part of the Journalism Innovation Program he was a fellow of, and the class couldn’t decide on a subject for their collaborative piece – a graphic novel to be produced within a few weeks.

For Pape, there was one story that had lingered: that of high profile acid attack victim Tat Marina.

“I told them I had terrific stories to tell, from Cambodia… interestingly three quarters of the class were young women… so I told them the story of Marina… the story of a teenage girl who is used, manipulated, discarded, abused and has her life destroyed – the life that she knew.”

It wasn’t the first time Pape had wanted to use the medium to explore the political scandals weaving through Cambodia. In the aftermath of 9/11, he sat with former colleague Rich Garella, trying to flesh out a critical analysis of the violent 1997 grenade attack on an opposition rally in Phnom Penh - for the left-wing American magazine Mother Jones.

“We were looking at how this [story] could come out and have the greatest impact… how could it reach the most people, and we talked about how terrific a graphic novel would be, that it could reach so many who can’t read,” Pape recalls.

“Cambodia is so visual and there are figures in the military and government who just have great faces to draw... but we said, ‘it’s too bad we don’t know anything about graphic novels.”

Pape had poignantly narrated Marina’s story in a 2006 story for the US journal Open City, ‘Faces of the Past and Future’. The feature story then became the foundation for the Stanford students’ graphic novel, christened Shake Girl (Marina sold fruit shakes as a 12-year-old). The amateur work also drew on other jealousy and hate crimes and examples of gender-based violence.

Pape is still emotionally bound to Marina’s plight, and perhaps always will be. Earlier this month he launched an ambitious Kickstarter – a funding platform for creative projects - campaign to raise almost $30,000 for a “rigorously journalistic” full-length graphic book on her story, called The Beauty Curse – a more sophisticated, detailed and factual undertaking of Shake Girl, with translations into Khmer, French and Japanese (where the graphic novel endures as serious literature), and other cultures where acid attacks are prevalent. The deadline for funding contributions for the Kickstarter project is March 10. Pape hopes the dramatic preliminary illustrations for the novel, by US artist Vrej Kassouny, will deliver a more in-depth story than was able to be told by the earlier Shake Girl.

In a country still marred by high rates of gender-based violence, the vicious 1999 attack on Marina, then a 15-year-old karaoke music video actress and at the time, the lover of high ranking minister Svay Sitha (since promoted to the Secretary of State at Council of Ministers and the president of the Press and Quick Reaction Unit of the Council of Ministers) remains one of the most high profile acid attacks.

In the hazy bustle of a Phnom Penh market that December morning, there with her three-year-old nephew, Marina was suddenly wrenched away from her breakfast, beaten and trampled by bodyguards.

The girl was then doused with five litres of nitric acid. A crowd of vendors and shoppers watched in terror as her skin melted away, her ears dissolved and she writhed around until unconscious. She survived, just. Marina has never been able to seek justice in the Cambodian courts. As reported in the Phnom Penh Post in 2009, Sitha paid Marina’s medical costs (she received treatment in Ho Chi Minh City and later in Boston in the US, where she fled to as a political refugee), and although Sitha’s then-wife, Khoun Sophal, was issued with an arrest warrant, nobody was ever prosecuted for the crime.

“I told them the story and afterwards there was complete silence in the room. I’m thinking, ‘these kids from northern California, they just cannot relate to this story’. Then I had to run off to a meeting but afterwards the teacher called and said all had unanimously said they wanted to tell Marina’s story. He said the environment was electric - these kids had previously been arguing about what story they were going to tell. They couldn’t stop talking about it. They connected to her story as a teenager in a starkly different universe.”

“Due to the time constraints it was fictionalised and was in a way a test run but I was able to learn about the amazing possibilities of using a graphic novel, to visually tell these kinds of stories – you’re limited in a documentary due to there not being certain footage, or photos that aren’t there…but if you can go back and draw them based on people’s descriptions and memories, also some of the photos that do exist are just so horrible that they make people turn away – so putting it into drawings puts it into a safe space that a reader can trick themselves into thinking, ‘I’m just looking at a cartoon’ – but in the end they ultimately know that this happened – you can put elements in it to highlight the reality of it.”

The finished project, published - in English only - online, was a success, garnering over 10,000 hits from over 70 countries in its first week.

Its social commentary is at times poetic and laced with irony, pain, and humour. There are moments of poignancy: when Shake Girl dreams of being an Apsara dancer she whispers “the small and large humiliations of my world disappear.”

“The story I wrote about Marina for Open City is going to draw people who are already sensitive to certain elements of the story. Shake Girl, on the other hand... I knew people whose teenage children were fighting over who would read it again – they never would have been touched by the article because it would have been too hard and harsh,” he says.

The Beauty Curse will be different, he says, in that it will be “100 per cent rigidly factual.”

“I look at it just like writing a feature for any prestigious magazine.”

Most importantly, it will add to material on Marina - newspaper and magazine features, documentaries such as Skye Fitzgerald and Patti Duncan’s moving 2009 documentary Finding Face - that has aimed to give her a voice, something Pape says is most critical.

“Marina is very passionate about [the project]. She had her voice taken away really young… I hoped that at some point she would be able to speak about it and make it meaningful - creating justice for other people and helping to find it for herself. Each time she is able to speak and have her voice and story told, as long as it’s done in a good and respectful way – is another tool for her to get her life back- she has suggested that to me recently.”

Human Rights Watch is vociferously supporting the project, and will be involved in its research, production and distribution, Phil Robertson, HRW Asia Division deputy director, says.

“Shake Girl was impressive but completed in a very short time frame. We felt if the illustrations were done more professionally it could help [the issue of acid attacks and gender based violence] reach audiences that may not be inclined to read a report, but will be moved by Marina’s story…it’s a very innovative project…sensitive and respectful and claims made will of course have to stand up factually. Eric has spent a great time with Marina and it won’t just be a better drawn Shake Girl – it will add depth to what was happening and going through her mind.”

“Acid attacks are a tough topic… it can easily turn people away, and editors rarely want to do that. It is the kind of story that many editors might find important, but that they don’t need to run, and they can delay running,” Pape adds.

He says he gleaned much throughout the Shake Girl creative process, particularly straddling the line between journalism and illustration. “I learned about ways to tell stories visually and to reduce text and dialogue as much as possible. I learned how it is easier to represent individual and even conflicting perspectives of different people in a story in graphic novels than in journalism. You can give each voice its due, which is to say, you can illustrate each person’s way of seeing something.”

Although The Beauty Curse will not be the first graphic novel in Cambodia – graphic novel length stories (typically longer and more durable than comic books) were serialised in the 1980s by authors such as Uth Rouen and Em Satya, Phousera Ing published Water and Earth in Khmer in 2007 and Patrick Samnang Mey produced French and English versions of his popular graphic novel Eugénie – it will certainly be the first to address such a controversial, political, and sensitive issue.

Influenced by the likes of Le Photographe, a French graphic novel on a MSF mission in Afghanistan in the 1980s combining photography and illustration, and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, Paris-based Pape says the rich history of comics and graphic novels as serious story-telling mediums has also inspired him.

Samnang says he has aims to print Eugénie in Khmer but doubts it will sell in Khmer. “We’ll see in 20 or 30 years, but to cover costs, the novels are at least $10-20, can people afford it?

Those that can would prefer to spend their money on iPhones, a Lexus or clothes.”

Still, he believes Pape’s project is important and a “great educational tool.”

“All the students in Phnom Penh will take the work and its ideas back to the countryside,” he says.

While the goal is to have it published online and in print, in Phnom Penh and further afar, Pape remains vague when asked about distribution.

“We would like everyone to have access to a project like this. It remains to be seen how that can happen, and whether the authorities believe in freedom of information.”

Just over three weeks ago, on January 28, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court for the first time convicted a man under the rarely used Acid Law, passed in November 2011.

Bin Soeun, a 49-year-old who splashed battery acid over the face of 32-year-old Nhem Sreyda, received a five-year prison sentence and 10 million riel fine.

While human rights groups and acid attack experts applauded the prosecution, and the fact attacks had dropped since the law was introduced (there were eight attacks in 2012, compared to 17 in 2011 and 26 in 2010) they argue that in a country that has been plagued by the issue, the new legislation lacked clout, rarely tested in court and missing a crucial sub-decree regulating transport and limiting access to acid – which Ouk Kimlek, under-secretary of state at the Interior Ministry, said he hoped would be adopted early in 2013.

Ziad Samman, Cambodian Acid Survivors Charity project manager, said the reason for the lack of judicial action taken against perpetrators was multi-faceted: out of (the victim’s) fear of the attacker, a lack of understanding of and confidence in the judicial system, a lack of evidence, and the fact victims may not want to revisit such a traumatic experience.  

When Pape first met Marina, an ice storm had enveloped Boston. It was several years after he’d returned to the US and around a year after Marina’s attack.

“It was completely surreal and intense…when she greeted me in her hooded top and going from this giant snow storm indoors to a Cambodian environment…I’d done a lot of human rights reporting for the [Phnom Penh] Post it was a surreal conjuncture of two worlds.”

He says Marina does not remember much of those early discussions now- she was in and out of consciousness, doped up on painkillers after intricate skin grafts, surgeries and having burns cut out.

“Learning the intimate details of Marina’s story after meeting her that first time touched me so deeply that 13 years deeper in my journalism career, I’m continuing to feel the need to come back to it,” Pape says.

“The people who poured acid on Marina will be represented in this book... The injustices of her story, her pain and her resilience are all things that convince people to pay attention, and to care. Her story is unforgettable.”


To contact the reporter on this story: Claire Knox at [email protected]


Follow Claire on twitter at: @claireknox18


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