Conveying the complexities – emotional and historical – of forced marriage under the Khmer Rouge through art is no easy task. But the dancers and musicians of the Sophiline Arts Ensemble and Khmer Arts delivered on just that over the weekend to three sold out audiences at Phnom Penh’s Chaktomuk Theatre.
Phka Sla – which means “areca flowers” in Khmer – is a mixture of contemporary and traditional dance, which premiered over the weekend as part of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia’s effort to provide cultural and moral “reparations” to the victims of the Khmer Rouge regime – in this case, the 779 civil parties who testified about forced marriages in the ongoing case 002/02 against former Democratic Kampuchea leaders Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea regarding their participation in the crime against humanity of forced marriage.
The testimonies of civil parties to the court form the basis of the storylines in the show, and the fates of those forced to marry under the regime are seamlessly woven into the choreography.
The performance opens with a traditional marriage, alongside an introduction of the concept of forced marriage as a policy of the Khmer Rouge regime, which encouraged it to boost the population. The practice remains a poorly understood form of the regime’s gender-based violence.
“Why wouldn’t a man want a wife?” the narrator asks. Before they can ponder the question, a flashback to 1978 transports the audience. The all-female dance troupe acts out scenes of forced labour as three menacing cadres watch over them. One by one, dancers are plucked from their work assignments and paired off, all in violent yet graceful movements.
Paired off, and symbolically bound by their kramas, the dancers convey the options faced by those who had to live through forced marriage. Some dance in harmony; others clearly struggle.
The production successfully avoids one-dimensional portrayals of the Khmer Rouge period. In one scene, Pisey, a woman executed by Angkar for killing her Khmer Rouge-appointed husband, is reunited with him in the afterlife, and they find reconciliation in their dialogue.
“I fought to liberate Cambodia from the corrupt Lon Nol government and the American imperialists . . . I wanted a fair, prosperous and independent Cambodia,” the cadre pleads, realising that the Khmer Rouge’s attempt at a utopia has catastrophically backfired as Pisey forgives him.
The music, which features variants on traditional melodies and interludes in which patriotic songs from the Khmer Rouge, cleverly immerses the audience into a challenging emotional and historical context.
The performance also captures the nuanced stories of couples that chose to stay together and renew their vows years later despite having been forced to marry.
Speaking after the show last night, civil party Om Noeun said her hope is that young people not only understand the history of forced marriage but value the chance they have to love freely.
“Phka Sla symbolises our happiness,” she said. “Don’t abuse it.”
Meanwhile Seng Thong, a civil party from Ratanakkiri province, noted that disbelief and denial of what happened persist, a continuing source of anguish for those who lived through forced marriage.
For Soth Sovandy, one of the dancers, performing Phka Sla was so personal that it brought her to tears after the performance.
“I’m very happy to able to tell you the story of my parents [who were forced to marry] to you all,” she explained.
If the objective was to reach a young audience, as civil party lawyer Marie Guiraud stated in her opening remarks, then Phka Sla may have succeeded, if the feedback from young members of the audience is any indication.
“It’s a story everyone should know and not be scared of,” 24-year-old youth arts advocate Lomorpich Rithy told the Post. For Sreypov Oung, 23, this was the first time she had seriously confronted Khmer Rouge history.
“Before I just knew the word ‘Khmer Rouge Regime’ and just heard a little story from my friends and parents and relatives, but I never got a deep understanding, but today I got a greater understanding of what is the Khmer Rouge regime.”