‘Moving above the stream rather than losing oneself in it’: how participatory is ‘participatory’?

‘Techniques will never make a testimony, testimony is pure of any techniques… and yet it already implies the appeal to techniques’, Derrida argues (2002, p. 95). The sentence reads in several ways in the context this paper tries to draw. Participatory approaches emerge as reaction to the ‘distant others’ that techniques—electronic and digital media—have multiplied (Frosh 2009, p. 50). They claim for closeness against remoteness and its possible effects (indifference, desensitisation). They pit emotions born out of proximity with victims against techniques that ‘de-materialise’ suffering. At the same time, Derrida’s comment also points to the apparatus (camera, stage) that represents witnessing. Is such apparatus rendered visible (as it was done to some extent in ‘cinema vérité’) in ‘Breaking the silence’ and ‘We want (u) to know’? Do they unravel the narrative techniques used for organising biographical fragments and arousing emotions?

‘We want (u) to know’ goes by the book of ‘participatory approach’. It focuses on learning by doing, places the experience of the participants at the centre of the project, tries to create a safe environment (the process is monitored by mental health consultants), and the team members call themselves ‘facilitators’ more than teachers (Epskamp 2006, p. 46). Yet, there is one problematic aspect: simulation. At some point, the inhabitants of Thnol Lok decide to film scenes of killing and act all the parts, including that of the murderers. Re-enactment is to be based on their imagination since none of the villagers attended executions. The filmmakers seem to be overtaken by the process they initiated. Emotion, yes, but not that kind: it clearly appears that some ‘cultural clash’ is at play here. The foreigners are confronted with some side in the victims they would perhaps prefer to avoid. Furthermore, it reveals Western reluctance towards more physical memory forms that might be more familiar to Cambodians (scenes of beating were re-enacted during the National Day of Hatred) but are alien to the more intellectualised Freudian Western mindset. ‘Acting out’ does not fit the ‘working through’ conception of trauma recovery paramount in the West. ‘I never imagined that anyone would voluntarily choose to re-enact such horrific and traumatic moments, but I can only hope that through such participatory action, the villagers found closure in acting out their stories as a community’, one of the member declares.

That participatory projects are no smooth process is clear. The story of re-enactment also shows the limits of the collaboration between the international team and the villagers. The scenes of executions are not included in the movie’s final cut. The filmmaker Ella Pugliese explains: ‘[W]e chose, after long debates on the matter, not to show the killings, only to suggest them’ (Gée 2009a, b, c). The movie only depicts the villagers preparing the re-enacted parts: drawing storyboards, blackening sandals with coal to make them look like the Pol Pot’s time rubber shoes, putting on the krama (traditional scarf) … There are scenes of escorting prisoners, arrests. To Carole Vann (also a filmmaker) who attended the presentation of the movie at Bophana Centre, such decision is disturbing. She recounts: ‘the filmmakers are careful to inform the audience that they reacted to the villagers’ proposal’. Did the movie team debate the matter with the villagers and suggest them other visualisations? Vann wonders. It is not said. The mass argument is that it was the villagers’ spontaneous idea and it made them feel good. It sounds to Vann as if the filmmakers were ‘putting themselves out’ of their own choice. Nonetheless, the fact remains, it was their choice and the villagers are not even credited as co-directors. One might regret that moments when the team decided not to keep the scenes were not recorded: what arguments structured their discussions? Rather than disclosing relationships and conflicts between cultures—the very basis of participatory projects—we get edited perceptions of it. Emotions are filtered away at a twofold level, by removing both scenes that might have allowed viewers to relate differently to Cambodian memories, and clues how the whole team felt being so close to witnesses emotionally.