A group of seven Cambodian artists representing Amrita Performing Arts has recently returned from a three-week tour of Rwanda, where they performed a play that tapped into the two countries’ shared histories of violence and their aspirations for reconciliation.
Cambodian and Rwandan artists perform Breaking The Silence during a recent tour in Rwanda.
Breaking the Silence, produced by the Phnom Penh-based arts organisation to encourage Cambodian people to speak up about their own experiences during the Khmer Rouge regime, toured through Rwanda from March 25 to April 14.
The tour coincided with the annual commemoration of the east African country’s own genocide.
“At first, we just produced this play for reconciliation in our own country,” says Kang Rithisal, Amrita’s program director.
“But an NGO that works in Rwanda saw our play and wanted to have it performed in Rwanda, a country that had a genocide similar to ours.”
In 1994, about 800,000 ethnic Tutus were murdered during 100 days of killing perpetrated by a majority Hutu population, according to the BBC.
It was in the spirit of sharing experiences through art that Breaking the Silence was brought to Rwanda.
The play was created by Dutch director Annemarie Prins in 2009.
Based on real-life testimony, it depicts victims and perpetrators of the Khmer Rouge regime’s atrocities discussing their past experiences with one another, as a way of creating reconciliation in the aftermath of genocide.
Since its 2009 debut, Breaking The Silence has been performed in Phnom Penh and several Cambodian provinces.
It was adapted into an audio play and broadcast by radio stations, including Voice of America (VOA), and has served as a media outreach tool to encourage conversation among Cambodians about a painful time in the Kingdom’s history.
For its Rwandan tour, the play was adapted slightly for a new, foreign audience.
Organisers of the trip say the theme for the Rwandan tour was “you are not alone”, as a way of expressing that even now, Cambodians still deal daily with the pain of their past experience.
The touring production incorporated two Rwandan actors, Wesley Ruzibiza and Niyitegeka Gratien, in its cast. Ruzibiza and Gratien took on the role of narrators, interpreting the play for local audiences.
“Our Cambodian artists do not speak the Rwandan language, and the Rwandan artists do not speak Khmer. So what we do is that the two Rwandan artists play the narrators,” Kang Rithisal says.
“Sometimes they translated what our actors said. Sometimes they just summarised.
“And sometimes they performed by asking more questions of the Cambodians to clarify what their people are not familiar with.”
Kov Sotheary, 44, a drama professor at the Royal University of Fine Arts (RUFA) who performed in Breaking The Silence, says that despite initial language barriers during the first days of rehearsals, the Cambodian and Rwandan performers were eventually able to connect.
“After three days, we could work together quite well because we are artists. Our heart is in the arts.
“The similar histories of both countries helped us understand each other’s stories quickly,” Kov Sotheary said.
The ensemble performed Breaking The Silence six times in three different cities around Rwanda, with about 500 people in attendance at each show.
The Rwandan performance was also aired twice on national television, according to tour organisers.
During the visit, Kov Sotheary observed that Rwandans were more open about their past sufferings than many Cambodian elders.
“Rwandan people really share their stories with their children more than elder Cambodians, who do not want to remember their life in the Khmer Rouge regime because they’re afraid their past story can hurt them,” she says.
“I’m proud because we had a chance to share our pain with them,” says Khiev Sovannarith, a dance professor at RUFA who plays a monkey dancer in Breaking The Silence.
“We tried to show them that murder never helps in a nation’s development. Only peace can build a nation, so we should reconcile.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Roth Meas at [email protected]