Cambodia Indiegogo Announcement – Global Arts Corps

Cambodia Indiegogo Announcement – Global Arts Corps

Global Arts Corps is thrilled to announce the launch of our Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign[]. We are raising funds for our final two workshops in Battambang, Cambodia where we have been collaborating with the young circus performers from the Phare Ponleu Selpak school. Our team of international artists will return to Cambodia in February 2015 to continue to work with the young circus performers on a devised circus/theatre production that explores the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge. Once the development workshops conclude, the production will embark on an international tour to other countries emerging from conflict. 

About Global Arts Corps:

From Rwanda to Kosovo, Cambodia to the North of Ireland, Global Arts Corps has used the transformative power of theatre to bring together people from opposite sides of violent conflict, unrest and war in 17 countries on 3 continents, reaching over 75,000 audience members, and facilitating reconciliation workshops for over 11,000 participants.

We are an international community of professional artists who use theatre as a catalyst for dialogue, as a way to shift perspectives, and as a means through which to bring about understanding, tolerance and empathy. Our goal is to become a multi-lingual, multi-cultural resource for conflict resolution and reconciliation in conflict zones across the globe.

GAC currently has projects in various stages in Cambodia, Northern Ireland, Bosnia, and Kosovo and is in discussion with representatives from Canada for a project on their recent Truth Commission. The recently completed GAC documentary film, directed by Michael Lessac, A Snake Gives Birth to a Snake, premiered at the Durban International film festival in July 2014. It had its U.S. premiere in October at the Woodstock Film Festival in New York where it received two awards: Honorable Mention for Best Documentary Film and Honorable Mention for Best Editing. It has been shown as a ‘work in progress’ screening in Afganistan, Germany, Kosovo, South Africa, France, Bosnia, Ireland, Canada and the US. GAC also initiated a Perceptual Change Institute in 2011, which is an interdisciplinary thought laboratory exploring concepts and ideas around conflict resolution including perception, identity and memory. 

To find more information about our projects please visit our website:





TEH Newsletter #2 2011: CHANGING ROOM Study published!‏

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TEH Picture of the month
TEH Delegate Petar Todorov in “Parallel Personalities", part of the project "Parallel Realities" by Pro Rodopi Art Centre (Bostina, Bulgaria) in June/July 2010.
Photo: Nikolina Kostova-Bogdanova

Dear readers,
Welcome to TEH Newsletter #2 2011, featuring the latest news from Trans Europe Halles – a European Network of Independent Cultural Centres. The TEH Newsletter is produced by the TEH Coordination Office in Lund, Sweden.

We are very happy to announce the publication of Changing Room – Mobility of Non-Artistic Cultural Professionals in Europe. It is a first-of-its-kind research study examining mobility issues in the European culture scene within the two-year pilot project CHANGING ROOM. Another recent publication from TEH is Nordic Perspectives on European Networking – 13 independent cultural centres in conversation. In this 20-page booklet, delegates from the Nordic TEH members reflect on the role of networking in a Nordic and European context. Both publications are available for free download from the TEH website.

TEH are concerned to hear about the assassination of Guatemalan artist Victor Leiva on February 2nd. There are around 3000 assassinations of artists, cultural actors and spiritual leaders in Guatemala yearly. The victims are killed merely because of the way they think, dress or express themselves, and TEH together with freeDimensional condemns these acts of violence and hope for the killings to cease immediately.

Also in this Newsletter, we urge you to sign the we are more manifesto to express your support for culture in Europe. Read more about the campaign and get involved below.

Enjoy the read!
Marian Söderholm, Office Manager
Anna Weitz, Communication Manager

CHANGING ROOM Study published!
Changing Room – Mobility of Non-Artistic Cultural Professionals in Europe is a first-of-its-kind research study by the Sibelius Academy examining mobility issues of the “backstage staff” of European culture within the Trans Europe Halles project CHANGING ROOM.

This study is an in-depth investigation of the possibilities for, and barriers to, mobility within the European independent cultural sector. Its outcomes include key learning points and concrete recommendations on how to develop mobility practices for non-artistic staff members in the future.

Trans Nordic Net presents Nordic views on networking
In the booklet Nordic Perspectives on European Networking delegates from the 13 Nordic TEH members are asked what it means to be part of an international network, and what they would like to use the network for in the future. The interviews have been carried out by Karl Hallberg, president of Not Quite in Fengersfors, Sweden.

"It is fantastic to meet all these super smart, cool and fun people who all want to make the world a little bit better", was one of the answers.

The publication rounds off the the three-year project Trans Nordic Net, which has been supported by the Nordic Council of Ministers.

Register for TEH Meeting 71 this week for early bird prices!
This is the last week of early bird prices for TEH Meeting 71: "Shifting Gears" at Creative Center Carnation in Tartu, Estonia, 14 – 17th April 2011. The early bird deadline for cheaper registration is February 28th. So don't forget to go straight to the TEH website and register today!

TEH at To Culture With Love. Management in Potsdam
On February 13 – 16th, Marian Söderholm from the TEH Coordination Office participated in the second edition of To Culture With Love. Management workshop in Potsdam, Germany. TCWLM is an international workshop for European young professionals and students working in the field of arts and culture.

TEH at Culture in Motion conference in Brussels
Birgitta Persson, Secretary General of TEH, was invited to present the CHANGING ROOM project at the Culture in Motion conference in Brussels, Belgium on 15 – 16th February together with other projects grantees mostly from the Culture Programme. There was a lot of interest for CHANGING ROOM from other participants, especially the MatchMaker, which is now open source and open to everyone.

New videos from Stanica on TEH TV
Stanica (Zilina, Slovakia) have shared two new videos on TEH TV. One is an audio performance exploration of the urban legends of Bratislava by Mariek Piaček. The other is the third edition of Stanica's culture news broadcast. Enjoy!


ufaFabrik focus on Cambodia on Music Freedom Day
Focus Cambodia is going to be a collage with live music, information, film documentaries and talks. The idea is to highlight the situation of musicians and artists in the past as well as today's life in Cambodia. The event will take place at ufaFabrik (Berlin, Germany) during Music Freedom Day on 3rd March 2011.
Cultural centre REX (Belgrade, Serbia) will also participate, showing a concert with GRUBB – Gypsy Roma Urban Balkan Beats.

Milón Méla workshop at OZU this summer
This year, OZU (Monteleone Sabino, Italy) will host the Milòn Méla Source's Research Workshop between 30th June – 9th July.
Milòn Méla is an ongoing theatre project under the direction of Abani Biswas, active for the last 20 years in Europe and India, working mainly with traditional Indian techniques. The workshop focuses on body, voice, attention, concentration and on the work with nature and silence.

Exhibition about LGBT rights at REX
On 4 -11th February, REX (Belgrade, Serbia) and Swedish initiative Article One presented an exhibition showing the history and contemporary life of LGBT persons. Article 1 of the Declaration of Human Rights provides the basis for the exhibition with the same name.
Photo: Milica Mitic

Disturbing the public opinion at Röda Sten
The art event Disturbing the Public Opinion at Röda Sten (Göteborg, Sweden) shows another possible image of Iran between 8th March – 3rd April 2011.

French theatre at Interzona
Et jamais je n'invente is a play by IΩ TEATRO from a text of Charlotte Delbo. It was performed on 27th January 2011 at Interzona (Verona, Italy).
Photo: Dea Longo

Wake and shake them – sign the we are more manifesto!
we are more, the Europe-wide arts advocacy campaign set up by Culture Action Europe, has now launched its manifesto online. With the manifesto, we who value and shape contemporary European cultures call on national governments and European decision-makers to strengthen the recognition of the role of arts and culture in the development of European societies by increasing the support to culture in the next EU budget. Since the launch of the manifesto last week, more than 2000 people all over Europe have signed the manifesto. Put your name to the list and spread the manifesto in your country!

TEH condemns the assassination of Guatemalan artist Victor Leiva
Víctor Leiva, only 24 years of age, was a young artist who was a member of Colectivo Caja Lúdica for several years. As facilitator and activist dedicated to community arts, his work brought him the appreciation and love of his working partners. He was killed on February 2nd 2011 in Guatemala City.

Help us support Belarus Free Theatre fight for freedom and justice
– TEH Solidarity Fund open for contributions

Following the Belarus post-election crackdown on opposition candidates and protesters in December 2010, TEH set up a solidarity fund to support the TEH Friend organisation Belarus Free Theatre in their fight for freedom and justice in Belarus.

We believe that an economic help can make a small relief in their struggle. Help us support their fight for a democratic Belarus by making a contribution to the TEH Solidarity Fund for Belarus Free Theatre.

On the TEH website there is a list of the donations that have reached the fund as of today. Thank you all for taking action against Europe’s last dictatorship!


Apply now for short-term network funding with your Nordic/Baltic partners

From On-The-Move: Make Mobility Green!
Green Strategies for the Nordic Art Scene: Seminar at Wanås konsthall, Sweden, 13th April 2011

On-The-Move launch new website

TEH supports we are more
we are more (2010-2013) is a Europe-wide arts advocacy campaign set up by Culture Action Europe.

50 members in 26 countries
Trans Europe Halles (TEH) is a European network of independent cultural centres. It was founded in 1983 and has 50 members and 13 Friend organisations in 26 countries.

***Follow and interact with TEH on Facebook and Twitter***
Help raising the visibility of TEH by suggesting our fan page to your Facebook friends. We now have almost 1,400 fans – thanks for your precious support!

Also, check out and upload your own photos to the TEH Flickr photo pool!

TEH Newsletter #1 2011: Welcome to the new year with TEH! (And check out the new videos on TEH TV!)‏

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TEH Picture of the month
This is what it looked like when Mains D'Oeuvres (St Ouen, France) celebrated their 10th Anniversary on December 18th, 2010. Happy Anniversary Mains D'Oeuvres!
Photo: Vinciane Verguethen

Dear readers,

Welcome to TEH Newsletter #1 2011, featuring the latest news from Trans Europe Halles – a European Network of Independent Cultural Centres. The TEH Newsletter is produced by the TEH Coordination Office in Lund, Sweden.

2011 has a lot in store for TEH. As usual two network meetings are on the agenda, the first one in Tartu, Estonia on the 14-17th of April. New projects are starting, other ones are being wrapped up. TEH Members are presenting their fantastic spring programmes. And the days are finally getting longer and lighter outside our windows.

As written about in Newsletter #11 2010, TEH has set up a Solidarity Fund to support our friends in Belarus Free Theatre, who were arrested during the protests against the presidential elections in Belarus in December. Please read more about the situation below, and consider making a contribution – big or small – to the fund.

You will find the new feature "Picture of the month" starting from this issue. We will gladly receive photos from your centres each month (send them to marian[at] It's great to see what's going on all around Europe! Also in this Newsletter, there are a bunch calls for artistic grants and residencies just waiting for your applications.

Enjoy the read!
Marian Söderholm, Office Manager and
Anna Weitz, Marketing & Communication Manager

Celebrate Music Freedom Day with TEH!
On 3rd March 2011, several TEH centres will participate in the global campaign Music Freedom Day.

At ufaFabrik (Berlin, Germany), plans for Music Freedom Day are going well. The day wil
l focus on Cambodia, including a collage with live music, documentary films and delicious food. The idea is to highlight the situation of musicians and artists in past and present-day Cambodia.

Registration for TEH Meeting 71 has opened!
TEH Members, Friends and invited Guests are now warmly welcome to register for TEH Meeting 71 at Creative Center Carnation (Noor-Eesti Loomekeskus in Estonian) in Tartu, Estonia. The Meeting will take place between 14-17th April 2011 and the theme is "Shifting Gears".

Platform Art Project at Tabacka
In November last year Tabacka Kulturfabrik (Kosice, Slovakia) hosted four presentations of centres from Trans Europe Halles. Platform Art is a project focused on propagation of independent cultural centres from around Europe. See the video from Platform Art in Kosice on TEH TV!

NEXT Festival at A4
In December 2010, A4 (Bratislava, Slovakia) was the scene of the 11th edition of NEXT Festival for Advanced Music. "Maybe the best experience of the festival", says Lenka Bednárová at A4, "was the energetic music performance of the acoustic trio The Thing from Sweden and Norway" (Paal Nilssen-Love from The Thing pictured above).

New videos on TEH TV
you can watch videos from the CHANGING ROOM workshop "The Art of Sustainability" in Paris in June 2010, and the Platform Art workshop in Kosice that took place in December. Enjoy!

Help us support Belarus Free Theatre fight for freedom and justice
– TEH Solidarity Fund open for contributions

Following the Belarus post-election crackdown on opposition candidates and protesters in December 2010, TEH set up a solidarity fund to support the TEH Friend organisation Belarus Free Theatre in their fight for freedom and justice in Belarus.

We believe that an economic help can make a small relief in their struggle. Help us support their fight for a democratic Belarus by making a contribution to the TEH Solidarity Fund for Belarus Free Theatre.

On the TEH website there is a list of the donations that have reached the fund as of today. Thank you all for taking action against Europe’s last dictatorship!

Subcase Circus Fair at Subtopia
Swedish circus, variety and street art are part of a growing movement. Audience interest is increasing and more and more venues and festivals present shows of these art forms. On the 17th -18th of February 2011, the third edition of Subcase Circus Fair will take place at Subtopia (Botkyrka, Sweden).
Photo: Ludvig Duregård / 2funny

New premieres at Łaźnia Nowa
Łaźnia Nowa Theatre (Cracow, Poland) present two new premieres within the framework of a project dedicated to Sławomir Mrożek. The two stage productions – “Mrożek Performance” and “The Fall of the Eagle’s Nest” (Polish: “Upadek orlego gniazda”) will be shown on 27th-29th January.

Röda Sten presents: Testaments Betrayed
Röda Sten (Göteborg, Sweden) is proud to present “Testaments Betrayed” – the first comprehensive solo exhibition of Loulou Cherinet in Sweden. Cherinet's photographic and video based work is rich with references to cinema and documentary filmmaking.
Photo: Loulou Cherinet

Ambassador in Focus: Sandy Fitzgerald
TEH Ambassador Sandy Fitzgerald is a bit of a legend in Trans Europe Halles, with more than 20 years in the network. He is the former TEH Delegate of City Arts (Dublin, Ireland) who now works as a freelancer in various cultural projects, and who has a secret wish of being the Pope…

Fabryka Trzciny leaves Trans Europe Halles
Fabryka Trzciny (Warsaw, Poland) has decided to end their membership in TEH. We would like to thank everyone at Fabryka Trzciny for their involvement in the network and wish them good luck with their future projects!


Cultural Cooperation Placements in Moldova & Ukraine – Tandem Project. Deadline: 15th February.

International Symposium: The Language of Art and Music, Berlin, 17-20th February

Art as Cultural Diplomacy: Forum for Young Leaders, Berlin, 14-20th February

Residency at Lake Victoria Residence Arts Centre Kenya. Application is ongoing.

Open call to artists above 45 – Jeune Creation. Deadline: March 1st

Call for X-OP Residencies at Association for Culture and Education KIBLA

Call for artists to create mural designs/sculptures/installations in Noyant Gravoyére. Deadline: March 1st

From On-The-Move: Stockholm Fringe Festival is looking for talent! Deadline: 22nd March.

From On-The Move: 2011 Application deadlines from the Nordic-Baltic Culture Mobility Fund

TEH supports we are more
we are more (2010-2013) is a Europe-wide arts advocacy campaign set up by Culture Action Europe.

50 members in 26 countries
Trans Europe Halles (TEH) is a European network of independent cultural centres. It was founded in 1983 and has 50 members and 13 Friend organisations in 26 countries.

***Follow and interact with TEH on Facebook and Twitter***
Help raising the visibility of TEH by suggesting our fan page to your Facebook friends. We now have over 1,300 fans – thanks for your precious support!

Also, check out and upload your own photos to the TEH Flickr photo pool!

Ten Gems on a Thread II

By Catherine Filloux

Originally published by The Drama Review 48, 4 (T184), Winter 2004

At home we have different mothers, but in the forest, we all have just one.
—Cambodian Proverb


Soon after I arrive in Phnom Penh in November 2003, I visit Sre Ampil, the
farm/orphanage of a French-Khmer art historian, Monsieur Son Soubert.1
Son Soubert is the son of Son Sann, a prime minister from the 1960s, and his
farm is about an hour from Phnom Penh in Kandal Province. Son Soubert tells
me he has held many positions in the government throughout his life and, during
Pol Pot, he was trained by sympathetic pied noirs to run a “superette” in
Nice, France. My own mother is a French-Algerian pied noir, whose family
settled near Nice. On his farm the air is light, the countryside green, and
Monsieur Soubert’s orphanage hopeful. There is a new orphan, the youngest
child here, who has just arrived today. He is holding a skinny, yellow “doll,”
and when my Cambodian-American friend and translator, Chath pierSath,
asks the doll’s name, the boy says, “Chubby.” When Chath asks the orphan his
name he also says “Chubby.” He shows us how he can touch his nose with his
very pointy, cute pink tongue. We gather around the boy—I hesitate to call
him “Chubby”—and his older brother. The two boys cling to each other.
Chath, Son Soubert, and I are with a Polish-Canadian aide worker and her
Greek boyfriend. We linger around the two new orphans, unable to leave. It
seems we encircle them as if we are the world, all of us from our different
places on the globe. I feel we stay there in a way to send them our good wishes
for life—a life without parents, but still a lucky life, perhaps, in a kind and
gentle orphanage. One cannot see the full picture, of course. As we pass the
girls’ dorm, there are many flowers blooming outside and Son Soubert says to
us that it is obvious this is the girls’ quarters. It looks pleasant and peaceful.
The children wash their old, hand-me-down clothes at a collective well, and
throw them over makeshift lines to dry; the amenities are few.
In the blazing sun we walk through fields to visit the stupa of Son Soubert’s
father, who died recently. It is shaped in a large, wooden, pastel-colored lotus,
which we enter to pray. Later, in the orphanage’s community room where the
children dance and sing for us, I see a picture of Son Sann in China during an
interim government period in the 1980s, and also in the picture is the Khmer
Rouge leader Khieu Samphan, smiling. The food for lunch is delicious, and
the orphans attending to our guest table keep dropping ice cubes into our
cokes, hovering around reminding us to take the various sauces.

Pol Pot
I think a lot about Pol Pot when I arrive in Cambodia this trip. I wonder
how a man can destroy a country, all the time knowing it is not one single man
who destroyed it and that the country is not truly destroyed. I feel anger at
Saloth Sar (Pol Pot’s real name), but of course the anger is very useless and has
no place whatsoever to land. What would my anger add to the enormous boiling
pot of anger surrounding Pol Pot? I then think of those who might have
abetted him: the French communists, the Americans during the VietnamWar,
and certainly others. More than anything, I can now conclude that Cambodia’s
frailty, vulnerability, and darkness is not unique to this country but a continuum
of our world. And that when I see this country, I cannot help but see
myself. For none of us is perfect: we struggle with hardship, great mysteries,
and with constant incomprehension. This realization does not make things
better, except that it is humbling.

Lakhaoun Niyeay
The students in my six-week playwriting workshop at the Royal University
of Fine Arts (RUFA) are second-year undergraduate B.A. students in classical
and folkloric dance, circus performance, and various types of traditional theatre;
or teacher/students in drama, going back to get their degrees. Thirty students
have signed up for the class, including my moto-driver, Pich Kakada, a
talented male dancer of khaol (mask-performance); there are many morewomen
than men in the class. The assignment will be to write and rewrite a short play
with some relationship, however minimal, to a wat (Buddhist temple). Our
course will end in a two-day Playwriting Works-in-Progress Festival, The Wat
Plays 2003, modeled after the HB Playwrights Foundation’s Festivals in New
York. Because we don’t have time to stage the plays, we will do readings in
which the students will also act. When I explain the nature of a “reading” to the
students they have a hard time understanding the concept, and I don’t blame
them. At the end of each day, there will be a discussion between the audience
and the playwrights.

The Royal University of Fine Arts opened its doors in the 1960s, a visionary
school spearheaded by the talented architect, Vann Molyvann. RUFA had just
begun when the Khmer Rouge ransacked everything. There is currently very
little money to rebuild the school’s infrastructure, including the curriculum
and the classrooms. Lakhaoun Niyeay, or “spoken-word theatre,” is low on the
list of priorities and there are currently very few new plays.
To give some background about spoken-word theatre in Cambodia, I will
start with the inspiring Queen Indradevi, of the Angkorian period, who formed
a dance troupe in the Royal Palace and wrote stories about the former lives of
Buddha. In Cultures of Independence: An Introduction to Cambodian Arts and Culture
in the 1950s and 1960s, Ly Daravuth and Ingrid Muan provide a delicate
overview of Cambodian theatre: in the all-male theatrical form khaol, the performers
wear masks to reenact stories from the Reamker, the Khmer version of
the Ramayana. In yike, performers use song, stylized gestures, spoken word,
and a narrator to tell the story. The newer bassac theatre came from China in
the 1930s to the Kampuchea Krom region, now South Vietnam, and is known
in Vietnam as hat baoy. These singing performances became audience-pleasers
in Cambodia.

In the 1960s renowned playwright Hang Thun Hak translated A Midsummer
Night’s Dream into Khmer, replacing some of the gods and spirits with Khmer
equivalents. The Cambodian filmmaker Yvon Hem says, “Khmer don’t like
to watch realite´. They like everything that is exage´re´”—whatever is not reality.
I invite His Excellency Pich Tum Kravel, one of Cambodia’s leading playwrights (the subject of my first article; Filloux [2002] 2004), to speak to my
class. Kravel survived Pol Pot and presently works for the Ministry of Culture.
He has carefully documented the history of Cambodian theatre, much of it all
but lost during the Khmer Rouge years. Kim Pinun, the Vice Dean on the
faculty of choreographic arts, who serves as my liaison at RUFA, sets up a microphone
and a fan for Pich Tum Kravel. In the 1960s, Kravel explains to the
students, the government subsidized him as a playwright because at that time
spoken-word theatre was a source of pride for the nation. When Kravel returned
to Phnom Penh from the killing fields, he saw his plays ripped up and
eaten by bugs. Kravel tells the class he believes a political theatre can exist in
Cambodia today. In 1983, he and playwright Chheng Pon worked on a play,
Dam Noeur Cheat Kampuchea (The March of Cambodia), in which there were
100 actors. The play was produced 10 times and the theatre was always packed.
Kravel says he has adapted to many political
regimes throughout his life and
has found a way to be political in his writing without insulting the powers that
be. Kravel’s teacher, Hang Thun Hak, wrote political plays, such as Kanha
Chariya (The Ethical Girl, 1955–1960), which is about bribery and corruption.
The police would sit in the first two rows with the script and wait for the
actors to add any extra lines. If they did, they would be arrested, and it was
King Sihanouk’s mother, Queen Kossamak, who protected them.
My friend and translator, Chath pierSath, asks about role-models in Cambodian
society. Kravel answers, “Though it sounds like we are looking down
on ourselves to say this, the younger generation of Cambodians don’t read.
For example, the moto-drivers as they wait for a fare do not read but play
cards, while in Vietnam even a moto-driver pulls out a book.”

“Playwriting is like tearing yourself in two,” Kravel tells the students. You
are both the writer and the audience. He mentions to me in French the trois
unite´s and to the students in Khmer, “time, place, and action.” His ultimate
recipe is: “short, meaningful, easy to understand/hear, visually entertaining.”
As he leaves, Kravel says that the class is especially helpful for the young students.
“All we can do is build a bridge between what we had and what exists

A female folkloric dancer writes for her wat play about a ceremony called
Pchum Ben, which falls during the period of the waning moon. Lured by beating
drums, ancestral spirits, ghosts, and ghouls of hell come to the pagodas for
15 days to wait for offerings from the living, who will receive good luck.
Other wat plays are about a pagoda boy hiding a delicious lobster dish from a
monk; a thief who makes appeals to Buddha; a matchmaking trick played with
an urn of ashes; an alcoholic mother who is visited by a wise monk; a monkey
who inspires a jaded princess; and a Buddhist nun who tries to raise money for
her delinquent grandson.

Two young, female classical dancers display strong talent for playwriting.
Tieng Min Chnas Torl (Hardship Does Not Defeat Honesty) is a witty short
play about a young girl, Mech, and her male cohorts who steal car parts for a
living, taking refuge in a wat. In Ormnach Khmean Kunathor (Tainted Power),
a car owner runs over an old man on a moto and is more concerned with the
body of his dented car than the old man. When a monk coming out of a nearby
pagoda urges the car owner to leave, the car owner pulls out his gun and fires
it threateningly into the air.

Some of the students write Buddhist parables in which fate forces a person
to repent. In the short play Kam Tarm Chorn Keng (Sin Comes Back to You), a
grandmother on her way to a wat is run down by a mean boy on a bicycle.
Suddenly, the boy falls in a ditch and sees the error of his ways.

I also invite playwrights Hourt Sithan and Ros Kuntheara, two of the three
62 critical acts critical acts critical acts critical acts critical acts critical acts critical acts critical acts critical acts critical acts critical acts critical
critical acts critical acts critical acts critical acts critical acts critical acts critical acts critical acts critical acts critical acts critical acts critical
authors of Robuos Chivit (A Wounded Life, 2001), a play based on a true story
involving sex trafficking, to speak to my class. (The third author is Kim Bophavy.)
Ros Kuntheara is the play’s director, as well. Hourt and Ros encourage
the students to write about social issues rather than falling back on tried-andtrue

Security Briefing
In my routine “security briefing” at the heavily barricaded American Embassy,
I learn from a man I’ll call “Chip” that the most dangerous thing to do
is to ride on a moto. When I first enter the embassy, my backpack and I are
thoroughly checked with X-ray machines, my cell phone is tagged and put in
a cupboard along with my moto-helmet. There are more cars in Phnom Penh
now and more fender-benders, Chip says. He also tells me that I should report
any suspicious activity involving people gathering intelligence on members of
the embassy. In Cambodia, the Muslim population, the Chams (also targeted
during the Khmer Rouge time), make up less than four percent of the population.
He tells me there is no evidence that they are involved in anti-U.S. activities.
I also learn about counterfeit money in Cambodia; the main currency
is dollars, and he says people counterfeit expertly down to five-dollar bills.
Don’t be afraid to hold the money up to the light. Also, the police are at best
harmless. Soon their AK-47s will rust and be useless. But all the same, don’t
make eye contact. Bottom line, Chip assures me, things are fine in Cambodia
right now, which makes his job boring. The U.S. is currently building a large
new embassy in one of the prettiest parts of Phnom Penh. The U.S. staff just
held a mural competition for young Khmer artists to cover the large wall that
will surround the embassy.

Shortly after the “briefing,” Chath pierSath and I are invited to dinner at
the large villa of a worldly, experienced state department man, who works at
the American Embassy. He is currently training his Khmer maid to serve a` la
continental style. His home is palatial with room after room, chilling air conditioning,
every kind of liquor imaginable, and a photo of King Sihanouk
shaking JFK’s hand. But neither leader is looking at the other: for one, Sihanouk
is so much shorter than JFK that unless he tilts his head awkwardly up,
he can only look at the American president’s tie. Our host knows everyone;
he is very interested in learning from other people, so he asks questions of me,
being a playwright, and Chath, as a Cambodian-American. He asks Chath if
he thinks villagers harbored great resentment for the city people before Pol Pot
came to power? Where did that hatred and violence come from? Does it date
back to Angkor? Cambodia is Asia’s Poland, the man says, sandwiched between
Thailand and Vietnam, as Poland is between Russia and Germany. I am
later told the man is CIA.

The Boss
The first reason my students give for not writing about the Khmer Rouge
period is because of the wat theme. Wats were destroyed and monks killed
during the genocide. Many of the younger students in my class were not born
during the Pol Pot time. A Cambodian friend explains that Pol Pot’s righthand
man, Ieng Sary, Brother Number Three, has been taken off the list of
Khmer Rouge perpetrators in current history books because of his “integration”
in Prime Minister Hun Sen’s present government. The “facts” of history
depend upon the regime in power. A Cambodian friend of mine has a colleague,
now 27, who lived in the provinces and as a younger man he and other
students burned a figure representing the King to show their hatred. Now, this
kind of burning is strictly illegal and severely punishable. My friend tells me
he recently did some work on program notes for a performance related to a
famous actress who was murdered a few years ago. The Ministry of Culture
said the notes could not be used in the program because of “the boss.” People
disappear, my friend says. The students in class tell me that the Pol Pot period
was not taught to them in school. The curriculum focused mostly on territorial
issues regarding when, how, and by whom Cambodia’s land was taken.
The older teacher/students in my class categorically say they don’t write
about the Pol Pot time because they are scared. With the recent shootings of
pop singer Touch Prey Nich
and radio journalist Chour Chetharith, who
played Nich’s songs, artists are afraid to speak up. The person currently in
power has succeeded in silencing artists by scaring them. I ask them if they
attribute the current poverty, corruption, and lack of “rule of law” to the Pol
Pot time and they say yes. Before the Khmer Rouge period, in the ’60s, there
was poverty and corruption, but not to this degree, they say.

From here the conversation predictably moves to Vietnam, which they say
supports the current government. Thailand, their other neighbor, is also responsible
for working against Cambodia’s best interests, they say. And of
course the Khmer Rouge period brought other countries’ involvement—
China, France, and the U.S.—into question. The current King sided with the
Khmer Rouge movement during the ’70s. A British friend, a journalist who
is present in class, asks if Cambodians are perhaps not always blaming outsiders
and playing the “victims.” The teacher/students forcefully reply that they
voted in the elections but their votes were not honored. They have also been
involved in protests in the past, but because the current government is powerful
in its repression they are less so now. Another reason for not writing
about the Pol Pot time is the difficulty of remembering the nightmarish past,
one teacher/student says. The question of why Cambodians don’t do anything
to change their situation is one my British friend also brings up. An artist who
just graduated from RUFA says that medical and law students in Cambodia
speak openly about the government. They are not dependent on the government
for jobs and they “don’t care” if their words put them in danger.

I imagine that surviving a regime such as the Khmer Rouge would place
persons in a vulnerable psychological state, with their ability to trust eroded
and their instinct to fear exaggerated. I feel the need to honor survivors as exceptional
human beings. I think about the chilling American TV footage during
the Pol Pot regime in which the journalist Ed Bradley sits near a fence on
the Thai border, reporting the violence that may be going on inside Cambodia,
a country closed to the world. I believe the years that went by before the
U.S. acknowledged the genocide, and the years when we supported the Khmer
Rouge because it opposed the North Vietnamese are very important historically.
The world was divided between those safely outside the fence, and those
inside the fence experiencing horror. This question of responsibility certainly
obsessed the Polish lawyer, Raphael Lemkin, leading him in 1946 to create a
new word—genocide—to define this kind of horror. Lemkin spent his life
trying to make genocide an international crime. He is the subject of my most
recent play, Lemkin’s House.

A Khmer acquaintance tells me that if I get angry at the current politics of
the country, I should learn to distance myself from the anger. A turning point
for him was when a big car tried to force his moto off the road—a regular
occurrence. He decided to stay put in his lane and the car owner pulled him
over and held a gun to his head. I’m sweating at a party when he tells me this
story. I feel a heater blowing air at my back.

The Prince
I deliver a package for a friend to Prince Norodom Sirivudh via his assistant.
Later that morning the Prince calls on my cell phone to invite me to lunch.
I’m taken to a house near Independence Monument, where there are many
guards in many different kinds of uniforms outside. A gate is opened and I enter
the compound and go into an office. On the walls are black-and-white
pictures of royalty. There are neat stacks of paper, some telephones, a sound
system, and a boom box made of wood. There is a snapshot on the desk of the
Prince and his oldest daughter who lives in New York with his ex-wife. After
a while the Prince enters, dressed in a khaki suit. We talk half in French, half
in English, both of which he speaks equally well. He is 52, extremely sympathetic,
as well as sympathique. He insists that I say the informal tu to him, and
that I certainly not call him “His Excellency the Prince,” but by his first name,
“Sirivudh.” We have in common two Cambodian-American female friends,
who are both remarkable young women, involved in legal activism and human
rights. To me these women are the future of Cambodia, and they both feel
friendship and respect for this prince. It is because of them that he invites me
to lunch in his kitchen, and also because the royal family has always been interested
in artists.

Right now the Prince is in a very difficult position politically. FUNCINPEC
(the Royalist Party) and the Sam Rainsy Democracy Party gained
enough seats in the July 2003 election to share power with the Prime Minister,
Hun Sen, but have refused to work with him because of his strong-armtactics.
When King Sihanouk reprimanded the factions for holding up the process of
governing, they agreed to meet and find a balance of power. These meetings
ended in another stalemate because the head of FUNCINPEC, Prince Ranariddh,
linked the P.M. to the killing of pro-FUNCINPEC radio journalist,
Chour Chetharith. How a balance of power can be reached is at the core of
Prince Norodom Sirivudh’s challenge. Many believe he would be FUNCINPEC’s
best choice for a leader in any coalition.

The Prince admits that he is not always as “good” as bespectacled Monsieur
Son Soubert, whom I mention meeting earlier at his orphanage. There is in
the royal family an appreciation for the good things of life, and the Prince
serves a nice bottle of white wine for lunch. He speaks to me of his house arrest
in 1970 at the beginning of the Lon Nol regime (he was also exiled from
Cambodia in the 1990s by Hun Sen). While under house arrest they never let
him go outside. They tried to break him. To counter his jailers’ intentions, he
constructed a schedule for himself everyday where he would “take a walk”
imagining he was on the streets of Paris, New York, and Phnom Penh. In this
way he got “exercise” and “to go to work.” His goal was to make himself tired
so he could sleep on a regular schedule. He also decided to learn one page of
the Larousse (French dictionary) daily.

Now at night, only when he is sad, he composes orchestral pieces on his
synthesizer. He composed one recently for his good friend and senior advisor,
Om Radsady, who was shot and killed outside a Phnom Penh restaurant in
broad daylight in February 2003. On a CD the Prince plays this very melancholy,
beautiful piece of music for me. He softly sings, along with the CD, syllables
I do not really understand. Perhaps they are “Om Radsady,” repeated
over and over. He has also composed a piece for the Cambodian pop singer,
Touch Prey Nich, who is currently in a coma after having been gunned down
with her mother as they left a flower shop. Nich’s mother died. He offers me
a room in this residence if I would like to stay (there is an eclectic group staying there already, including a comedian having political trouble, traveling monks,
and a male Khmer scholar who needs peace and quiet). He wants to take me
to the seaside at Kep, and tells me not to hesitate to ask for anything for my
class. He spends a long time with me and says he enjoys talking of other things
besides politics.

The Prince tells me that for him there is no way to explain the Khmer
Rouge. He believes that the fact that the people didn’t and still don’t rise up
against their killers, who in some cases live in full view, would neve
r happen
in Europe. “Is Asia more tolerant?” he wonders. If he is put in power, his first
goal will be to do something about the inhumane prisons.
As we confer, presents wrapped in pink paper are delivered by two women
and, with some embarrassment, he perfunctorily opens them and hands me a
book on the royal family, his CD, and a pamphlet with the King’s text from
Cambodia’s Independence. As I leave I am introduced to a Minister of Finance,
walking up the stairs in an expensive, dark suit. He gives me his card. I
know it’s time to go. I am driven back to my hotel in a big jeep by a driver
whose face is disfigured.

A Stone’s Throw Away
In the residential neighborhood where I live there are palatial homes right
next to cobbled shacks of corrugated metal, bricks, and tile. Laundry hangs in
front yards; fruits and fish dry on the roof. There is a lot of construction in
Phnom Penh, and some men are working on the pleasing frame of a roof, right
outside my window. Behind that roof is a tiled blue roof, which shines in the

My colleague and translator for the written word, Kang Rithisal (Sal), regularly
brings me translations of the students’ plays and helps me with Khmer.
“Kicking air” means unemployed. “Crossing the river” is delivering a baby:
it’s a hard job and you may drown. An “orange cat” is a lemon or lime. Sal uses
expressions in English like “a stone’s throw away” and “a comb of bananas.”
Sal’s older brother, Suon Bun Rith, has encouraged Sal to become proficient
in speaking and writing English.

Bun Rith is the Program Coordinator for AMRITA Performing Arts, an
NGO newly created and directed by the deeply committed American Fred
Frumberg. The group produces Cambodian performing arts both in Cambodia
and internationally. Amrita is a Sanskrit word meaning eternity. Bun Rith
tells me his commitment to the arts in Cambodia was galvanized one day when
he was organizing a traditional khaol mask performance. After the show he
noticed that one of the performers had managed to quickly clean off his
makeup and get on his moto to leave. The performer was calling to Bun Rith
from afar, asking if he needed a ride home. Bun Rith realized that the performer
needed to get a fare—the only way he could pay for his makeup. Bun
Rith declined the ride so the performer could take a paying rider. He walked
all the way home that night, thinking about how he might make a difference
in the arts.

I ask Sal, who is in his early 20s, to tell me what he learned about the Pol
Pot time in school. By way of an example, he tells me a complicated story
about a corrupt teacher at the college where he graduated, who seems to be
involved in levels of fraud that sound bizarre and insidious. Sal confides that he
continues to help his friends who still work at the college and are treated like
slaves. A group is trying to fight legally against this teacher but, Sal says, since
the police and legal system are corrupt, they may not get far.

The Wat Plays
In reading interviews of Cambodian artists, I learned that historically many
of the male artists went to wats to study as young boys. In a “Comment” in the
Phnom Penh Post, Nadezda Bektimirova writes:
Monks are trusted by the people, which is why the politicians wish to
use the Sangha’s authority for the implementation of their purely secular
tasks. But as the previous political experience of Cambodia shows, the
monks will be trusted as long as they stay independent of any politicians,
as long as they are neutral and free to express their own opinion on different
issues. (2003)

I am impressed by the way, from the start, the students jump into the playwriting
process. Discussion and rewrites help them, in varying degree, to consolidate
locales and sharpen plots. A young, male circus artist performs an
autobiographical monologue about how he gave up painting for the circus,
blending his words with circus acrobatics. He and many of the students are
doubtful when I suggest this idea of mixing forms, but the result is exciting
and energizing for both the performer and the audience. In a few cases teachers
give stories to younger students to write. An older male teacher/student
listens attentively when women in the class offer suggestions for his play about
a man who has two wives.

The older teacher/students also sometimes serve as mentors. The actress
Sok Ly, who skillfully performed in my play Photographs from S-21 in 2001, and
is in my class this time, coaches the young, male circus artist in acting for his
monologue, with strong results. My suggestion that Sok Ly and the circus artist
work together is originally met with surprise by both, but the result provides
communication between generations and disciplines.

Our dress rehearsal for the two-day Playwriting Works-in-Progress Festival, The Wat Plays 2003, is on 10 December—Human Rights Day. On this day, my
friend and colleague, Kay Matschullat, who will direct my play about Cambodia, Eyes of the Heart, in New York in October 2004, generously arrives for 10 days from New York to help me and to explore Cambodia. She energetically smoothes comings-and goings
between the readings, stages the sprawling curtain call, and teaches a warm-up for the playwrights/ actors to do before performances. The students immediately warm to Kay’s enthusiasm and openness.

The two-day Festival is held on 11 and 12 December, and both days the audience is filled with RUFA students in their early to mid-teens—all dressed in their crisp black-and-white uniforms. It is a full house, with few Westerners. Out of the 26 short plays, many are about thieves and the absence of “rule of law” in the country. It is difficult for the audience to sit through readings of 26 short plays in a two-day period, and hard for some of the artists to accept that the performances can onlybe readings. The emphasis placed on what has been written is difficult for many of the students and audiences to understand. This is a great lesson: readings are limiting on one hand, and beautiful on another. The possibility of listening to written words in a play is a luxury we tend to forget.

On the first day of the Festival the plays run like clockwork (if a slow clock)
and we have plenty of time for discussion. The young female playwright
whom I find the most talented, the one who wrote about the female thief who
steals car parts, is called to the mike to explain how she did it. Then, promptly,
another audience member tells her how he would rewrite her play. The desire
for an audience to get involved in the critique appears to be a universal in the
theatre, as does the fact that you can locate the playwright in the wings, hovering,
as he or she holds the script, following along with the actors onstage.
The first day of the discussion yields many lectures from male RUFA teachers
in the audience. There seems to be a precedent at the school for older males to
tell students what to do. At one point one such teacher criticizes the lack of
authentic context for true Buddhist thought in The Wat Plays. The fact that
for the younger generation the wat has turned into a new kind of place that is
not always used for sacred worship seems to worry him. Instead of seeing what
the students have written, he reprimands them for what they did not write. I
leap to the microphone to defend my writers, explaining the idea that this is a
Works-In-Progress Festival.

On the second day of the festival, the playwrights onstage are more self-possessed
during the discussion and many of them take the microphone to answer
questions and make comments about their plays. When one audience
member asks a female teacher/student why she chose the sad ending for her
powerful play about a brutal rape, she defends her decision, explaining the reality
of such events. Another audience member recognizes that the play about
the car accident is honest in its final violent image: a man shooting a gun into
the air. A Western audience member asks about the use of “ghosts” in some
of the plays and a playwright explains how offerings to dead ancestors bring
luck to the living. There is less lecturing by the male RUFA teachers in the

The six-week course and Festival confirm my suspicion from 2001, when I
taught two brief master classes at RUFA: some of the young Khmer artists are
born playwrights.

The clear spirit of fun, play, inquiry and an innate sense of the dramatic are
present at RUFA. The variety of artistic disciplines and ages in the near 30-
person class makes the experience extremely unique. The students’ hunger to
get involved is palpable and, even when I give simple quizzes on the Khmer
reading material I have photocopied for them, the students seem punchy with
excitement, as if this kind of rigor and follow-through are rare. The condensed
nature of the course provides needed momentum and, though the quality of
the plays varies, we are able to establish a cohesive forum for criticism and discussion.
The students’ ability to think outside of their specific traditional art
forms is new and sometimes difficult, but ultimately seems to be enlightening
for them. I see young students’ faces change as they gain the confidence one
gets from trying and succeeding at something brand new.

Frumberg, the director of AMRITA Performing Arts, tells me, “The biggest
impact of the playwriting course and the Festival was nurturing and encouraging
creativity in both thought and writing, and promoting dialogue
among art students and between students and teachers, both of which are
rather groundbreaking and crucial steps in our current development” (2004).
He says he was particularly excited by the number of women who attended
and the amount of talent I discovered in many of them.

The power of playwriting as it is forged in a new way, in a new place, with
new stories that need to be told, is exciting. A breakfast meeting reveals that if
my class is to continue in the curriculum, I will have to find a way to pay the
teacher’s salary. No existing teacher at RUFA will have the energy to continue
my class on his or her salary of U.S.$24 a month.

As Bun Rith says good-bye at the end of the second day of the Festival, he
shows me his new business card for Fred Frumberg’s NGO, AMRITA Performing Arts, which has an orange lotus on it. He explains that a lotus flower grows in dirty water and only needs sun. Some lotus flowers stay underwater and are snapped up by fish before they can see the light of day. Some flowers take longer to surface.

Trees Falling Down
On the last day of class, Kay Matschullat and I see that someone has chopped
all the branches off the bodhi tree outside the theatre. Before we begin our
goodbye party, Kay talks to the students a little about directing. One question
posed by a student is what must a director do if an actor is unable to connect
with other actors onstage? The Khmer answer, given by another student, is for
the director to take the actor out to dinner. Kay explains that she believes there
is a technical craft to acting, which actors need to learn to draw upon. Soon
after, Sal, Chath, and I bring out bananas, gelatin squares wrapped in leaves,
and soda. The students surprise us with a highly colorful frosted cake with violets.
We laugh and blow out the candles together. We dance and sing for the
rest of the class period, some of the students sharing classical dance, circus performance,
and songs. Kim Pinun, my liaison at RUFA, presents me with a
large wooden sculpture of a Khmer woman, breasts exposed, and assiduously
affixes a paper on the back, saying: “Souvenirs—To Catherine Filloux from
Kim Pinun (Cambodia).”

The next day Kay teaches an acting workshop for the professional National
Theatre actors, with whom I worked in 2001. Kay is enveloped by these performers,
who work on scenes from The Wat Plays. Kay and I are told that spoken
theatre students are taught certain vocal inflections for certain emotions.
This casts light on the sing-song style which is sometimes used by actors in
Cambodia. As Kay works with the students, I note that Nou Sandab is hilarious
as well as convincing as the alcoholic mother. Seng Bunaron plays the old
man run down on his motorcycle by the wealthy car owner. Kry Onn plays
the man who comes to the old man’s rescue. Kay and I are told by my friend,
a RUFA student who has just graduated, that Moliere’s L’Avare (The Miser)
was translated into Khmer in the 1960s. Kay observes that Bunaron would
make a wonderful miser in Moliere’s play, and Kry Onn, who has attended the
entire Festival and wants to direct, could direct the play.

I run into the man in charge of theatre operations and ask what happened
to the bodhi tree. He says it was in danger of falling and destroying the theatre,
so they had to prune it.

Back in New York on 15 January 2004, I hear on NPR that Uta Hagen has
died. I call Billy Carden at HB Playwrights Foundation to give him my sympathy.
He quietly speaks to me about her illness and her contribution to the

I go running up West End Avenue in the snow and on my way back home
at 79th Street and West End, by chance I’m stopped by police sirens and a cavalcade
of black cars and limousines, followed by a car with flowers and a coffin.
The sirens blare and cars and pedestrians stop to look at the spectacle. Death is
in the sirens, in the black cortege, in the temporarily hushed intersection of
busy New York streets. You can see family members sitting in some of the cars,
dressed in elegant black.

As I run back home, I think that when people died in Cambodia during the
Pol Pot time, there were no sympathetic phone calls, no coffins, no sirens, no
flowers, no hushed acknowledgment, no reverence. But just days ago I drove
past the beautiful villa of Ieng Sary, Pol Pot’s right-hand man, and saw the
guards reverently protecting his wealth and his privacy. Ieng Sary is the man I
indict in my play Silence of God, for currently living a free, luxurious life in
Cambodia, one of the poorest countries in the world, next to the millions who
survived and/or lost family during the Khmer Rouge regime.

In my mind the faces of my students appear: from the 18-year-old classical
dancer who looks like a little girl and writes truthfully about the death of her
mother, to the teacher/student who writes about the brutal rape. This teacher/
student’s hair is still wet from washing when she comes to class after lunch and,
despite the heat, she always looks refreshed. When I talk to her about her
work, she looks me in the eyes earnestly, and when the actors from the National
Theatre perform her play, she blushes. As a playwright I find it hard to
distance myself from anger toward the injustice I witness, as my acquaintance
at the party advised. Maybe it’s the writing bond. The trust given to me for
very little reason, except that these student artists are full of grace, light, and
joy, despite their hardships. A gun, a careless bullet in their path? The air between
all of us is so fragile: life. I can never forget my students’ faces, or th
names—but can a writer dare sign his or her name in Cambodia?

Also on 15 January 2004, the same day I hear about Uta Hagen and coincidentally
see the funeral cortege, back in Phnom Penh activists Chhin Laa and
Keo Chan from Cambodia’s opposition Democracy Party are gunned down
and killed. A week later, trade union activist Chea Vichea is shot dead.
One way to sign a letter in Cambodia is Sok Tuk Chea Thamada. “Peace and
Pain as usual.”

1. This is a continuation of an article about Cambodia, “Ten Gems on a Thread,” which
first appeared in @nd…a New Dramatists Publication, in 2002 and later in Manoa: In the
Shadow of Angkor: Contemporary Writing from Cambodia 2004. In 2001 I did a theatre project in Cambodia, returning two years later on a Fulbright Senior Specialist grant to
teach playwriting at the Royal University of Fine Arts. My most recent play, Lemkin’s
House, will be produced at the Kamerni 55 Theatre in Sarajevo in December 2004. Eyes
of the Heart will be produced by National Asian American Theatre Co. (NAATCO) in
New York, in October 2004.

Bektimirova, Nadezda
2003 “Comment.” Phnom Penh Post, November/December.
Filloux, Catherine
2004 [2002] “Ten Gems on a Thread.” Manoa: In the Shadow of Angkor: Contemporary Writing
from Cambodia 2004 16, 1:177–87. First published in @nd…a New Dramatists
Publication 1, 1.
Frumberg, Fred
2004 Email to author. Phnom Penh, 13 April.
Ly Daravuth, and Ingrid Muan
2001 Cultures of Independence: An Introduction to Cambodian Arts and Culture in the
1950’s and 1960’s. Phnom Penh: Reyum Publishing.

Catherine Filloux is a playwright whose plays include : The Beauty Inside (InterAct
Theatre Co. & New Georges, 2005); Eyes of the Heart (NAATCO, 2004); Silence of God (commissioned/produced by Contemporary American Theater Festival,
2002); Mary and Myra (CATF, 2000/Todd Mountain Theater Project, 2002). Photographs
from S-21, a short play, has toured the world. Her opera libretto, The
Floating Box (composer: Jason Kao Hwang), premiered at the reopening of Asia Society
in New York, 2001 (CD: New World Records). She has received commissions
from Theatreworks/USA; Silapak Khmer Amatak for an opera libretto with Cambodian
composer Him Sophy; and Ohio State University, where she was the 2003 James
Thurber Playwright-in-Residence. She has received awards from the Kennedy Center
Fund for New American Plays, the O’Neill National Playwrights’ Conference, the
Rockefeller MAP Fund, Asian Cultural Council, and Fulbright Senior Specialist. Her
plays are published by Smith & Kraus, Playscripts, Inc., and Vintage. She is a member
of New Dramatists.

Ten Gems on a Thread

By Catherine Filloux

Originally published in @nd…a New Dramatists Publication, Winter 2001-2002,

and in In The Shadow of Angkor: Contemporary Writing From Cambodia; Manoa, University of Hawaii Press, 2004.


For the past ten years I have been writing plays about Cambodia. In early 2001 I went to Phnom Penh, Cambodia on a Playwright’s Residency grant from the Asian Cultural Council. During the two and a half months I was there, I did two plays with Khmer (Cambodian) actors from the National Theatre, and research for my new play “Silence of God,” to be produced at Contemporary American Theater Festival next summer.

1) Hall of fame

These are the women I place inside my personal hall of fame. Chanthol Oung, the director of the Cambodian Women’s Crisis Center, is wearing a well-pressed white blouse, which highlights her dark and youthful face, as she shows me upstairs to her cool office. As though in a mantra she does not stop to breathe until she is done: “Confidential Crisis Shelter, Legal Representation, Reintegration, Vocational Training, Community Education, Monitoring Violence, Capacity Building.” She says there are men who will appear in her office, dressed in police or military uniforms, to demand their battered wives back. She tells me she says to them, calmly, “We will let your wives know you are looking for them.” There is a foreigner, she says, who raped young women, paid off the police, bribed the court and then came to find Chanthol, yelling at her through his car window. She couldn’t hear what he was saying, because at the time she was outside the Center, driving away in a closed Jeep. A general in the government owns a brothel where women or girls are locked up. Two women throw letters out of windows from inside, asking for help. She says, the mayor has closed down the brothel, but it is still open.

The second woman in my hall of fame, Kek Galabru, is dressed in a floor-length, purple, iridescent, silk dress and a white silk scarf, which she drapes around herself in various ways during my visit. She is the founder of LICADHO, the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights. When she speaks about the Cambodian Prime Minister she looks in a certain direction, into the city of Phnom Penh, as if he is there, hanging in thin air, right outside the curtained-window. I can see him in her gaze. Her face changes from radiance to shadow. Information suggests that he could be involved with kidnapping, theft, bribery and drugs. The French, who give money to human rights, don’t want to know about this corruption.

I ask her about hope and she looks at me: “Yes, you must have it,” she says.

I meet Vannath Chea, the president of the Center for Social Development, on my birthday. She is also gracefully dressed, serving tea at a round table in her office. She’s curious why I want to meet her. She says she is humble before the problem of “reconciliation” in Cambodia: the question of how to move on from the genocide. She bought land for a house. The house is near Tuol Sleng, the Khmer Rouge extermination center, now turned genocide museum. As they were digging the foundation they found bones of arms. The bones were tied together with electrical cord. She shows me how, underground, the bones were still tied, by putting together her own lower arms. She had the bones burned on her own property and the ashes were placed in a pagoda in Kandal province. Everyday she prays to the bones at an altar in her own house. She hopes that what she accomplishes each day can be done for the spirits of those who are under her house. She gets Kleenex for us, as we sit together at the round table. Maybe we can go to the pagoda, she says.

She cannot read my plays, she says, because she has no time to read. She glances at the piles of paper on her desk: she doesn’t even get to the newspaper. When I tell her I have come to Cambodia to do theatre, she says that the arts are like women, the first to be degraded in poverty and war.

The fourth woman, Sochua Mu, Cambodia’s Minister of Women’s Affairs, comes to pick me up in her Jeep. Her driver takes us to an Italian restaurant where we sit outside. She tells me she must, at once, dress the part of the Khmer woman and try to teach the men she works with that women are also precious gems. In Khmer culture, women are cotton and if cotton falls in the mud it is permanently soiled. A gem, which the man is, never gets soiled. So Sochua says to the men, “Women are precious gems.” Sochua has been serious in taking a few men, who have tarnished the precious gems, to court.

2) Pich Tum Kravel

I wait for Pich Tum Kravel and Mao Keng at the Ministry of Culture, in Kravel’s office, which has a prefab quality. Kravel’s suit coat and tie rest dignified on the back of his chair. The office is empty of any papers or books. I make a series of calls, on my cell phone, one to Kravel. I never once reach Kravel on his cell phone. It is always answered by a group of women whom I imagine to be sitting in a circle around the cell phone, picking it up, calling out Khmer words to me, to each other, to Kravel — who is certainly not there. After a while a woman appears in the office where I am waiting. She’s totally mystified to find me. She quickly turns on the air conditioner, returns with tea and quietly closes me into the room.

Kravel and Mao Keng arrive. Kravel is the foremost living playwright of Cambodia and he has taken a post in the government as “Undersecretary of State for the Performing Arts, Fine Arts and Libraries.” An accomplished, erudite and sophisticated man, he gracefully takes the Khmer translation of my play and promises to study it.

When I ask if my project is in place, Mao Keng, the director of the National Theatre says very simply to Kravel, in Khmer, that the actors are “waiting.” Kravel straightly translates in French, “Les acteurs attendent.” We laugh at the simplicity of what Mao Keng has just said and at his deadpan expression. Kravel is worried that the standard of acting has been lowered: there was a time when they had actors who could do Shakespeare, he says, and Moliere. Kravel himself was called the “Romeo of Cambodia” before the Pol Pot time. He wrote a play based on a famous poem “Tum Teave” by Pikhoh Sour; this was the Khmer Romeo and Juliet, and Kravel played Romeo. When I ask him to write down in Khmer the words, “I am a writer,” because I need to know the phrase for my new play, his handwriting is like all French-educated Khmer: beautiful and careful. I remember, when I learned to write French from my grandparents, all the different lines in the notebook to make sure you got the heights of the letters right. I ask Kravel, as I ask everyone, about Pol Pot. How could it be? It is not a question, he says, that he knows the answer to. Throughout his life, he says, he has had to adapt to various political regimes: Sihanouk, Lon Nol, and then the Khmer Rouge. He simply looks at me and says, “I survived as a ‘cultivateur.’” He says the word “Cultivateur” in my own native tongue, matter-of-factly. A “laborer”: one more disguise in his life.

Later I hear from a Khmer friend that Kravel changed his name after the Pol Pot time. He put “Tum,” based on Romeo, in the middle of his name. “Pich” is a friend of Tum’s. His chosen last name, “Kravel,” means earring. The earring leaves a hole so you can never forget, Kravel tells me later.

We are having dinner with a group of Khmer male academics, by the Mekong River. Beer girls flock around us, pleading with the host to buy their brand. I am sitting next to Kravel, with whom I have come to talk, and confess my sadness at seeing beautiful Miss Heineken and lovely Miss San Miguel with long red prom-like dresses and sashes. He simply says, “It’s for money.” Then he picks up his glass and looks at me seriously. “I ordered a Coke,”
he says. He believes my play will help younger generations to remember and understand. It creates a memory, he says, for Khmer people who will see it, and remember their own experiences. Some young people don’t even know about Pol Pot or believe their parents when they hear about the period from 1975 to 1979. It is a strange amnesia: a kind of anti-amnesia, I think to myself, because as much as some people want to erase the memory, it is there, perhaps even more strongly, because it is being resisted.

Even in his name Pich Tum Kravel resists. He has become a new person and, as such, survives.

3) Why did he correct my memory?

On the first day we meet in the red-curtained theatre of the French Cultural Center, the actors slip off their shoes at the bottom of the stairs and we sit in a circle on the gray-carpeted stage. We go around the circle to say our names. My interpreter, a visual artist who graduated from the Royal University of Fine Arts (RUFA), translates for me, as I tell the actors that I’ve been writing about Cambodia for ten years. My plays and oral history are passed around the circle and the actors look at my writing.

Eleven of the actors and actresses are from Mao Keng’s National Theatre, the only professional troupe of modern theatre actors in the country. A country in which there are virtually no contemporary plays produced. One actress is from the Royal University of Fine Arts, which before the war was a prestigious training center for Khmer performing arts, but now lacks funds. One actor, Arn Chorn-Pond, is a Khmer survivor, artist and activist, who divides his time between the large Cambodian community in Lowell, Massachusetts and Cambodia. As we sit in the circle I say to the actors that I have found, through the years, I like to write what’s close to my heart. “If you were going to die tomorrow what would you write?” I ask. I demonstrate that it would be better if they act out the story, rather than to narrate it in the third person.

We break from the circle and the actors take some time to think about what they will write. After lunch, around two, the actors come back holding their papers: some are folded into squares, some in notebooks, some with words all the way to the very edge of the paper, as if to save on precious space. There is a kind of nervous hush. I sit next to my interpreter, Dom Nang Pin, whose mouth is very close to my ear. He feeds me the words in English in a furtive whisper as the first actor, Bunron, runs onstage — ducking, hiding behind a bush, calling, gesturing downward with his hands, urging his friend to hide. He unwraps some food from his krama, his scarf, fearfully checking the perimeters, stuffing his mouth, his being, his life. What is the food? I ask Dom.


Bunron pounds his chest, gasping for air. His friend, who is invisible
— Bunron is doing this all alone — tells him he will steal some more potatoes tonight. In the field in the distance they look out at us in the audience. We are now armed guards with scythes, swords, knives, sickles. We sit further down in our seats. Bunron tells his friend, “No, don’t go, tonight. You stole today, they’ll kill you this time.” The friend, the invisible one beside him, says, “What does it matter? To die of starvation or from their blade?” Bunron makes a strong case for him not to go. Bunron asks, who will take care of his friend’s old mother?

The friend does go to the field, to steal more potatoes. Bunron watches him. We watch Bunron. After he is finished, Bunron bows to us and makes his way down the stairs. At the bottom he puts his shoes back on. I get up from my seat and hug him. It is not customary for a woman like me to hug him, in Khmer culture, but he is gracious and accepts it. And I tell Bunron that I love him for what he is done with such beauty and courage. Dom translates. Bunron nods. He makes the same movement and expression he will always make: one of accepting the inevitable, as if to say, “It had to be done. We had to do this play.” But I can see that it has cost him to recreate the story. Later that week I ask him about it and he says that, yes, it can give him a headache, and can give him bad dreams, but he wants to do it. He assures me and the others that he wants to do it.

Bunron chooses another National Theatre actor, his friend Kry Onn, to play his friend in the piece he has written. Twenty-seven days later, they perform the piece, which is called “Because of Hunger,” at a press conference for Khmer journalists as an introduction to our work. The press immediately asks, with a camera pointed at me: “Why the Khmer Rouge? Is this about the tribunal?” “It’s a play,” I say. “Theatre.” The actors say the same.

After Bunron and Kry Onn perform, we ask for questions. One of the journalists in the audience says, “The Khmer Rouge did not have swords, they had bayonets.” In our circle later Bunron asks, puzzled, “Why did he correct my memory?” Bunron knows what he remembers. “He probably wants to share his own story,” I say apologetically. Bunron is an artist, a survivor of a regime that tried to kill all artists, and now can tell his story, as an actor. The journalist does not seem to have had that same opportunity.

4) Lamentation of a Widow

When she does her piece, it is almost as if I am watching a silent film, except that Prak Vanny whispers to herself. Later when we stage what she has written, she moves the actors around to fit her memory; she directs them. She takes Chhouep Tang, the young man she has chosen to play her husband, by the shoulders and physically moves him to the place on stage where she wants him to be. What she does is recreate her piece — in rehearsals, in run-throughs — each and every time with the same amount of dignity. It is a short piece, maybe two minutes, but it is as if by repeating it, she gives it the impact it so clearly deserves for her: the minutes leading up to the last time she saw her husband. She was wrapping rice in banana leaves, there was a knock on the door, it was a Khmer Rouge officer. She is the oldest in the group, and it is eerie to see handsome Chhouep Tang play her husband, young as he would have been at the time. Fitting that she chose him. I learn that she was once a playwright herself, as well as an actress.

One actor is skeptical when she has finished showing us her piece. He asks, “Shouldn’t you tell us on stage what happened to your husband?” I am surprised by his question because every movement she makes from the moment she starts to wrap the rice in the banana leaves to the moment she leaves for work, miming putting the hoe over her shoulder, makes it clear what happened to her husband. And there was never any doubt, for anyone who ever watched Prak Vanny’s piece.

5) Coming Home

After the first day of watching the actors’ pieces I go home exhausted and get in bed. On TV is the film Coming Home in Khmer, with English subtitles. I cry for what I saw on this first day and for the actors’ bravery. I wait for the scene in which Jon Voight’s character makes love to Jane Fonda but it has been cut. The movie rolls along and I can hardly tell where it fit in.

6) Photographs

Rithy Panh, the French-Khmer filmmaker, has chosen Than Nandoeun (Doeun), one of the National Theatre actors, to direct my short play, Photographs From S-21, and has cast the actress Sok Ly as the Young Woman and Roeun Narith as the Young Man. Narith was the lead in one of Rithy’s recent films.

Doeun, Narith and Sok Ly make up their own subgroup and decide to rehearse in the mornings in the French Cultural Center Cinema theatre, where we will have our performances. There are tensions surrounding how much they are getting paid, and they ask that I come up with more money for the four performances. The director at the French Cultural Center agrees to find the balance of the money and we are able to pay all the actors a better fee in
the end.

Photographs From S-21 will be done in tandem with the group of actor-written pieces, Night Please Go Faster, titled after Monika Yin’s piece, about the flooding of her squatter hut, and a prayer she makes to her missing parents.

At Tuol Sleng, or “S-21,” the extermination center, in humid sunshine, the Khmer photographer Remissa Mak takes photos of both actors Sok Ly and Roeun Narith. He recreates the poses of the two victims in my play. Doeun, the director, wants to use Remissa’s blown-up photos as the set design, so that the souls of the photos will walk out of their frames embodied by Ly and Narith. I offer my hand as the child’s hand reaching up to the Young Woman in the photograph, and I lay on the ground as Remissa tells me how exactly to clutch my fist like a child on the bottom of Sok Ly’s black shirt.

There is almost no barrier for me when I listen to the play in Khmer and, during rehearsals, I give my notes to the director, Doeun, through my interpreter Dom. To me the rhythm seems slow and the tone sometimes one note. My comments don’t seem to have much effect.

Doeun has created impressionistic light and sound for my play which surprise and intrigue me. In retrospect they create a kind of theatre which is more poetic and non-linear than what I’m used to in the U.S. Doeun, an actor himself, does the sound for the play by breathing into a microphone from the booth in the back of the theatre. During the performances, by the end of the play, the theatre is totally silent but for sniffling. And when the lights come up no one moves from his seat.

On the Saturday that Photographs From S-21 and Night Please Go Faster are to open in Phnom Penh, Vannath Chea, the woman whose house was built above the bones in Tuol Sleng, takes me to the pagoda where the ashes of the bones are. She and the other women in the Jeep tease me that I won’t make it back in time for the performance, and that, when the Jeep breaks down, a lady walking on the side of the road, carrying four packages, a baby on her back and a bundle balanced on her head will have to take me in tow too. Along the way we see schools all named after the prime minister; the one road that is paved leads to his private home. I see a helicopter in the distance landing at his compound.

Along the road, pork is drying in the sun. A man pulls a cart piled high with cucumbers, there is a lushness to the green along the river. The older women walk barefoot in skirts, so fit, so graceful, their hair so naturally swept. People brush the dirt outside their homes with a thatch broom.

In Kandal province about an hour from Phnom Penh the Jeep turns into the pagoda and after a few minutes we find the monk who takes us to the altar where the ashes are in a marble urn. We pray to the urn. The monk says that when they did the cremation, the flames sparked many colors, and that they are special bones. He had a dream the night of the cremation that a doctor was giving him a shot. I ask if he thinks the bones had been those of a doctor and he says, yes he thinks so. He tells us that he takes very special care of the urn, bringing offerings every holy day, Saturday, and that he will not leave this pagoda because he would not want to leave the bones. I make an offering to him for the ashes in the urn, and for the souls of those portrayed in the plays to be performed that night. Every night before their performance, the actors Narith and Ly burn incense and pray to the two nameless victims in the photos they are playing.

When Rithy, the filmmaker, first read Photographs From S-21, he asked me if I’d be interested in writing a play about Bophana, a female Tuol Sleng victim about whom he made a documentary. Bophana was first written about by Elizabeth Becker in her definitive book about Cambodia, When The War Was Over. I go to the archives in Tuol Sleng and find the dusty, old box in which Bophana’s confessions are kept. I look at the box of absurd confessions which Bophana was forced to write in careful lettering, and at the attentive archivist.

Yes, I say to Rithy, I want to write about Bophana. I discover she is almost a national heroine. So many know her strong and resistant face. She fought to her death, defying the Khmer Rouge leaders by writing love letters to her husband, who was also killed at Tuol Sleng. Later when I ask Elizabeth Becker, she generously offers to let me see her translations of the Bophana files.

A Khmer friend used the word “unnecessary” to describe the Pol Pot time. When he speaks of the period, of its perpetrators, he starts to laugh: it’s a kind of helpless snicker, which I interpret to depict the insanity he feels about Pol Pot and perhaps the shame. He says he has never been to Tuol Sleng. Tourist busses unload at the gate, right in the middle of the city, and tourists flock in. Photos of “Pol Pot’s clique” hang at the entrance, though most of the clique is living free. The white tombs of those who were found when Vietnam invaded in 1979 are covered with white flowers that drop from trees above. A man selling tickets near the souvenir shop eats white turnips which he dips in salt. Beggars wait for the tourists at the gate. When I go there, I ask my moto driver, Saly, to come in with me. He points out to me the photo of Sin Si Samouth, the famous singer who was killed during Pol Pot. He tells me what a great singer he was and takes me to buy one of his CDs.

7) Directing and Producing

Before each performance of Photographs and Night Please Go Faster I pull the red velvet curtains on the stage so they’re even on both sides. I hang a black sheet over the backstage door that is ajar and I turn on the air conditioner. I commiserate with the young Khmer man who often tells me the French subtitle machine is broken and there is no one that can be reached to fix it because it is the weekend. I am delighted when the subtitle machine is fixed by someone who happens to be nearby. I listen to sound-tapes of frogs that sound like ducks; I dissuade the actor who made a new sound tape from using melodramatic music during another actor’s story. I remember the filmmaker Rithy Panh being sensitive to the actors’ melodramatic style when he came to watch a rehearsal. I get someone to take down a banner welcoming lawyers to a convention simultaneously being held in the theatre and I get someone to re-hang the photographs for the set of Photographs From S-21. I make sure the door is open in the back of the theatre so Kry Onn won’t be locked out when he runs offstage during Bunron’s piece. I try to air out the theatre a little from the smell of burning incense after the actors have prayed. I repeat that we want Khmer pre-show music, not Charles Aznavour. I send the stage manager Pok Dirama out to buy new batteries for Doeun’s microphone. I pay Sok Ly for her wig. I smile at Ros Navy’s daughter who plays herself in Ros Navy’s piece about when her daughter became very ill and a traditional Krou Khmer wanted to burn incense and pray rather than go to the hospital. I pick up the trash in the theatre and bathroom. I get the tickets from the French Cultural Center office, I take the money from the audience, I give programs out in Khmer, French and English, and if the program is in English I also give the spectators a flashlight, so they can follow along with the translated text in the dark. I try to encourage mothers with babies to take them outside if they start crying.

My favorite thing to do is to watch the actors carry in plates of fruit when they arrive for performances, two or three hours early, and to see them laugh at me because I am working so hard, and seem so busy.

(8) Saly

We arrive at night at my moto driver Saly’s house, driving through a maze of squatter huts over planked passageways, above a large sewer system. Most of the huts are open in the front and lit with candles, though occasionally one has electricity and, in some cases, a television which looms larger than life
in the dark. As Saly parks and honks his horn, I have no way to know where we are or how we got there. At the open doorway, we step over a board that blocks the entrance for the baby. Saly’s one-room house is made of cardboard and planks. As I glance at some cut out magazine pictures of women singers on the wall, he says, “We are very poor.” My heart is beating fast, and I am trying to smile, as I nod. His wife, laughing, shows me their baby. I touch the baby’s cheek and he also giggles; he looks like Saly, who is in his thirties but looks younger. The baby has a bandage on his navel and I remember Saly telling me he was at the hospital recently. Saly’s wife has a dazzling smile, as we sit down together on the floor in the glow of a kerosene lamp. There is a mosquito coil nearby and some noodles Saly’s wife has prepared. Saly quickly shows me an English tape he has been using to learn English. The baby enjoys playing with the cassette tape until Saly takes it away. I thank his wife for letting me have Saly everyday as my driver. Saly translates and she laughs and thanks me. I keep my eyes fixed on her beautiful, glowing face.

When we drive, Saly and I speak English and he asks me questions. He wonders if he can say “gentle woman” like he says, “gentleman?” I think about it, saying people usually don’t use the word “gentlewoman” but I don’t see why not. He says I am a gentle woman and that the woman who introduced us, Laura, is also a gentle woman. Saly tells me in English that, “Sometimes he is not clever” and that he dreams with his eyes open. At night, he says, shaking his head, he is dreaming and his eyes are open. He wants to talk to me about the Pol Pot time but his English is not good enough. I reassure him that it’s normal he dreams with his eyes open because he survived a bad war, and for the same reason, he may not always be able to think cleverly. And anyway, “No one is clever all the time.” He thinks about this, as we drive.

My friend Laura and I help Saly buy a new house. This one is not above the sewer water of the squatter’s village. It’s made of wood and thatch, and has some running water, electricity and primitive toilet facilities. It is better, Saly agrees. I see that he has pinned up a poster I gave him of an Angkor art exhibit. Saly comes to all the rehearsals and works putting up posters, buying water and bread for the actors, and giving any comments he has about the show. When it rains he hangs some of the wet posters on the seats of the theatre to dry. Near the end of the rehearsal period, he comes in with three circles on his forehead from cupping: he says his wife has given him a treatment because he hasn’t been feeling well. On opening night we rush to the change shop to get change for the bills I have to pay the actors. He is happy when the lady accepts no fee for giving us change. In the glass case below the lady, are bills from all different countries, stacked in small piles with rubber bands.

On the moto going to the theatre Saly says he won’t be coming to opening night. I ask him why, since I had invited him long ago, and he says no, he must go home, the air conditioning makes him sick. I take a deep breath. I touch his shoulder and say, “Saly, I want you to come tonight. You should come.” He nods, and says he will come. After the performance when he sees that it went well and that the audience was pleased, he admits he is relieved. He wasn’t sure whether the performance would be good, he tells me, as we drive home. He was afraid some people weren’t good, he admits, and he didn’t know if the audience would like it. Now, he says, he knows it is good and he is very happy.

(9) The Dump

As the path narrows Saly and I start to smell smoke, see more trash, a naked person walking dazed, and some scrawny dogs. He lets me off to walk into the dump on foot. To the horizon in every direction is trash, with smoke from burning waste rising in the haze of dawn. Children are lined up to get breakfast from a French non-governmental organization that provides meals, before the kids go scavenging through the trash–to make money for their families. A nurse treats a man who lifts up his pants’ leg to show her the bloody side of his leg and ankle, cut up from metal in the dump. A little girl holds a baby and scrutinizes me. Also scrutinizing me are Saly, and two other moto drivers, Heng and Kim. They have accompanied me and Laura, my friend who runs her own NGO “Global Children.” Some kids joke with each other in line as they wait for their food. In the dump itself are older women, with kramas wrapped around their heads, searching through trash with a pick, steps behind a bulldozer rotating trash. The scavengers look for anything they can melt, recycle, collect, to get a few pennies. In the dump itself, people live in makeshift huts on top of the trash. It’s morning time and a mother is cooking soup for her family; I can see the steam from the rice rising. I am confused to see children with backpacks making their way through the dump, as if on their way to school. The children I see have an air of simple necessity, as if they are the kids I usually notice playing badminton on the side of the road.

Kim, another moto driver, drives me away from the dump. He says he thought his life was bad but seeing this makes it seem better. As we wend our way back through circles of huts, my cell phone rings and I stop to answer it. When I finish talking, I see two young boys running towards me, with a plastic pink toy phone, calling into the receiver in English, “Hello? Hello?” laughing with glee.

(10) Never Again

Shortly after I return from Cambodia, I am introduced to a Khmer man who has received a human rights fellowship at Columbia University and works for LICADHO. He and I sit on a couch in the beautiful, plush lobby of the Columbia International House and the man keeps returning to the Pol Pot time, saying, “But, you want to know what happened to me…” The first few times he says it, I try to kindly say, “No, that’s all right I don’t need to hear…” but when he continues to repeat, “You want to know what happened,” I finally nod and listen to the story of how he survived Pol Pot. We talk about how the prime minister has the ultimate and only power in the country. And I remember what a Vietnamese artist told me: “Cambodians want peace at any price.” I say goodbye to the man and he gives me his email address. He says he will be beginning a project against torture. That day in May, as I walk home in New York, I renew my commitment. I remember, after my trip to the dump, talking to a woman from Human Rights Watch who said that part of a human rights violation is government collusion. I asked Saly, as we stood in the trash, if he thought Hun Sen had ever seen this place and he looked at me and said, “Fucker.” “Where did you learn that English word?” I asked him. He said, looking down at the ground, that someone he knew taught it to him. I, and the other moto drivers, got a good laugh. “It’s a good word,” I mutter.

Youk Chhang, the young director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, says a human soul cannot be destroyed. He is neither scholar nor lawyer, just collects pieces of paper, he says. He writes, “Searching for the truth!” at the end of all his emails, below his name.

Before my trip my father sends me a poem by JosÈ-Maria de Heredia about travelers who “Watch in unknown skies, rising from the deep: Stars they’d never seen before.”

There are stars. Precious gems, to chart the way. Searching for the truth.


I am indebted to Joanne Jacobson for her generous support in writing this article.