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Genocide theater gives voice to silent victims

Genocide theater gives voice to silent victims

Rouen Narith re-enacts the lonely torment of S-21 victim #3, whose name has been lost to history

Seng Bunron's brief was simple. If he knew he was to die tomorrow, what words would

he want to write today for posterity?

The result was "Because of Hunger", a harrowing account of the death of

a close friend during the madness of the Khmer Rouge regime.

"Because of hunger my friend dared to steal food even though he knew that his

life was at risk," Bunron said of the inspiration behind the story. "Because

of hunger my friend was killed by Khmer Rouge guards."

Bunron's "Because of Hunger" is just one of nine short pieces within "Night

Please Go Faster", an original play that will debut on March 31 at Phnom Penh's

French Cultural Center.

Edited by New York playwright Catherine Filloux, the play is part of a double-bill

shared with Filloux's one-act "Photographs from S-21".

But while Filloux's play is a direct attempt to address through drama the horror

of the Cambodian genocide, the playwright says the Khmer Rouge focus of the stories

written and performed by the "Night Please Go Faster" cast came as a surprise.

"I initially just wanted to give these modern theater actors a chance to do

something contemporary," Filloux said of the nine member troupe of actors from

the Cambodian National Theatre. "So I asked them to write a story based on the

premise of what they would want to write if they knew that today would be their last

day on earth."

Filloux knew that she had touched something that went far beyond the dramatic when

she discovered 75% of the stories were related to the actors' memories of what they

experienced during the 1975-1979 Pol Pot regime.

"I'm a big believer in just telling a story; I don't have any 'messages',"

Filloux said of her philosophy as a playwright. "But I think [the actors] can

get some sort of healing out of [the play]."

In "Because of Hunger", playwright-actor Seng Bunron (left) im-plores his starving friend, played by Kry Onn, not to steal food.

"They told me that he would only be gone three days," Vanny said, as if

still grappling with the enormity of her loss.

But Vanny says the experience of being able to tell their stories has been cathartic

for all the actors involved in the production.

"These are very sad things, but we are happy to be able to tell them to the

world," she said.

Filloux's "Photographs from S-21", which dramatizes a conversation between

two actual photographs that hang on the walls of the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum,

is Filloux's second attempt to dramatically grapple with the legacy of the Khmer

Rouge.

In her 1999 Roger L. Steven's Award-winning "Eyes of the Heart", Filloux

explored the plight of more than 150 Cambodian women in Southern California whose

ordeals during the Khmer Rouge period left them with psychosomatic vision loss.

"Photographs", however, was inspired by Filloux's dismay at a "bizarre"

1997 exhibit of S-21 photographs at New York's Museum of Modern Art.

"There was no context to the exhibition...it was almost like a tribute to Khmer

Rouge photography skills," Filloux said.

Filloux traces the inspiration for her artistic focus on the Cambodian genocide to

more than a decade of work with New York's Cambodian émigré community

which included the compilation of oral histories of female Cambodian refugees.

"I began to feel like a witness [to the Khmer Rouge genocide]... and as a witness

I began to feel a kind of responsibility," the playwright explained. "I

felt that there had to be something that I could do in terms of healing."

According to Bunron, both "Photographs" and "Night Please Go Faster"

highlight the largely overlooked role that drama can play in helping Cambodians understand

and cope with the legacy of the Khmer Rouge genocide.

"We may not have a big influence, but our plays can be like little lights shining

in a dark place," he said.

Arrested for stealing food, certain death awaits Bunron's friend, portrayed by Kry Onn.

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