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A woman sitting next to me in a dance performance, I realize, is crying. It is hard to tell at first because she holds her body so still but tears pour down her weathered face. Her hands trembled slightly as they clutch a tissue. As she watches the dancers swirl around the stage, she was overwhelmed, stood up and left.
Apparently, the woman is a survivor of a forced marriage that took place during the Khmer Rouge period. She was watching Phka Sla, a dance performance that explores forced marriage under the regime. It is a proposed ECCC-affiliated reparations project, and executed by the Khmer Arts Academy. . Accompanying the performance is an exhibition of oral testimonies from survivors of the state-mandated unions that were ordered by Angkar between 1975 and 1979.
The stories being told through dance hit close to home for this woman and others in the audience – many of whom have testified as Civil Parties in case 002/02 against Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea. She is by no means the only one crying.
It is these people’s testimony who inspired the event in the first place. Last year, Theresa de Langis, lead researcher on the Cambodia Women’s Oral History Project, approached the Khmer Arts Academy to develop a dance theatre performance based on her documented oral histories of forced marriage survivors.
With a grant from UN Women, the Academy consulted with civil parties and with a consortium of organizations – including Kdei Karuna, TPO and the Bophana Centre – to develop the performance.
“Classical dance is an art form that usually depicts the stories of gods andkings,” said John Shapiro, executive director of the Khmer Arts Academy. “Taking these stories, their very personal stories of trauma, and elevating it to the level of stories of gods – it’s honouring them in a way that within their culture says this is important.”
The dance is narrated by two characters: a couple who was forced to be ma by the Khmer Rouge, but at the same time found mutual respect for each other and stayed together.
This is a true story of a woman who is forced to marry a blind Khmer Rouge soldier. In the performance, and in a rage she pushes him down a well, furious that she has been forced to marry a person with special needs considering him as her enemy. After the Khmer Rouge find out, they beat her and throw her in the stocks; when she awakens, she sees the spirit of her dead husband. A conversation started between them exploring the different points of view involved in forced marriage. To her, she is being forced to marry the enemy, while he argues that he too was hurt by the Khmer Rouge, losing his sight and now losing his life.
“They have this argument about what their preconceptions about each other were and in the end she apologizes for killing him,” says Shapiro. “But the idea is that [the dance] is… an abstract form – it’s less about telling those specific stories than it is about thinking about considering the consequences of those stories. It’s about interpretation and consequence.”
“As you can see people are very emotional,” said Shapiro. “The idea of this project is not only to honour these people but to stimulate dialogue, stimulate conversations about [forced marriage].”
This is the two-fold purpose of reparations projects like this one: bring some measure of peace to the victims by giving them the opportunity to acknowledge their oft-repressed feelings about their experiences, and ensure that future generations are educated about what happened.
“When we perform in the provinces, the majority of our audience will be young people … who maybe are not so familiar with these stories,” says Shapiro. In particular, says Shapiro, their goal is to create empathy. None of the performers lived through forced marriage – all were born after the Khmer Rouge era, apart from one of the narrators who was a young boy at the time. In creating this crucial empathy, he feels, they’ve been successful. “Empathy is one of the most important things you can share with and develop in any population,” said Shapiro. The total inhabitancy of the character by the dancers, along with the very real examples of what they are performing sitting next to me in the audience, creates a deep and powerful understanding of the long shadows caused by forced marriage.