‘Breaking the silence’ looks for a concept that marries the two cultures, Khmer and Western. It revives Lakhaon Niyeay, a Western-style spoken theatre introduced to Cambodia during the French colonial period. Promoted as ‘national theatre’ it was mostly reserved for the privileged class (Chng Ching Ying 2010, p. 18, p. 24). In this framework, Annemarie Prins juxtaposes Western theatrical conceptions with elements proper to classical Khmer performance (e.g. traditional music and singing styles; figure of the monkey as familiar cultural anchor for villagers, comic relief and appeal to children). The play has a Brechtian approach with a ‘focus not on a realistic representation of actions, but instead the use of symbolism to economically depict events without literally acting them out’ (Chng Ching Ying 2010, p. 68). It includes seven vignettes telling stories of victims and perpetrators. One for instance presents a woman who stopped talking to her son because she suspects him of having been a Khmer Rouge soldier. Another shows a former Khmer Rouge nurse apologising to a woman because she left her father unattended to die. These vignettes have limited references to time and place: ‘each story taking place in the general present… and could apply to anyone in the audience’ (Chng Ching Ying 2010, p. 72). Prins shapes actual testimonies into archetypal witnessing of suffering. It allows villagers to identify parts of their own stories in the one the actors play. Yet, is this approach not too abstract? Jennifer Ka, reviewing ‘Breaking the silence’ for the DC-Cam publication Searching for the Truth, praises the cleverness of the play, but finds it too subtle for a ‘less-educated audience’ (2010). Chng Ching Ying conducted interviews with people from the village of Khum Thean after the play. They expressed their preference for a more realistic depiction of Khmer Rouge violence because it would corroborate their own experience and better convince young generations (2010, p. 83).
The attempt of Westerners to give Cambodians agency of their past is fraught with a danger… appropriation. Is it not remembering that ‘seems to be done for Cambodians by foreign performance practitioners’ (Chng Ching Ying 2010, p. 5)? Hijacking memories: as Western rewriting of Cambodian history; as turning painful testimonies into performance or video material, through selection of interviews or final cut of the movie. In these conditions, who then is the actual witness? Do outsiders work with the people themselves instead of speaking to them about them, as Annemarie Prins argued years ago?
A witnessing text is one whose structure interacts with the audience to create not just an imaginative experience regarding the subject of its discourse… but also the conjecture that this text is a witnessing text, that the event described really happened, and that the text was designed to report it … Therefore, under (certain) circumstances … texts produced by people who were not at the event can pass as texts produced by people who were at the event, because the emphasis is not on the ‘origin’ of the discourse but on the experience of the world we imagine through the text and the signs it gives of its own status as the world’s witness (Frosh 2009, p. 61).