Memories stained with Rouge

Photographs From S-21 brings the horrors suffered during Cambodia's dark era back to life

A scene from S-21.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the beginning of the Khmer Rouge regime's four-year massacre that resulted in nearly 2 million Cambodian deaths.

Security Prison 21 (S-21), or now the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, was only one of at least 150 imprisonment and execution sites in the country, and it has now become the title for Sineenadh Keitprapai's latest play in which she is joined by Saifah Tanthana.

In this new work based on a short play Photographs From S-21 by French-American playwright Catherine Filloux, Sineenadh and Saifah play two S-21 prisoners who do not know one another, who both feel alone, yet feel they cannot trust anybody in such an atrocious circumstance.

S-21 was first staged as part of Sineenadh's Crescent Moon Theatre's lighting workshop earlier this year and is part of this year's Silpa Nana Pun Festival, following Whaam! and The Binmen.

"They represent those victims who were confused and in fear," said Sineenadh. "It was heartbreaking. S-21 was about how some human beings didn't see others as equal beings but enemies."

In a recent chat with Life, Sineenadh discusses more about her experience in visiting the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the process of turning one of the most atrocious crimes against humanity into a play.

What was the experience of visiting Security Prison 21 like?

I went there in 2007. I already knew what the place was. I intended to see it with my own eyes. From outside you had no idea what it was like inside. In there it was like another world. I felt the bitterness. I saw graves, a board depicting prison rules and torture equipment. Further inside, there were even blood stains left and before long I had to come out and started crying. Right then, I thought of creating a production about this but there wasn't a right occasion for that yet.

How did the project begin?

We know a lot of history concerning many other countries like Japan or the US, yet we hardly know anything about our neighbouring countries. I, myself, only heard about the Khmer Rouge when I was young and that was it. Several years ago, during the Asia-Pacific Women Director Festival and later The Mekong Performing Arts Laboratory, I had a chance to meet a lot of artists from these neighbouring countries and learned about their historical and social issues through their stage plays. In the case of Cambodia, after the first visit in 2007, I also got to listen to artists who grew up during that era and became refugees and for a period came to live in Thailand. I realised that these stories were by no means distant from us at all.

Can you tell us more about Catherine Filloux's Photographs From S-21?

It's a conversation between two characters who are strangers. They are lonely, yet they don't feel that they can trust anyone. In the script, there was hardly any stage direction, but we are beginning to see stories unfold through their dialogues. I finished the translation in April and we did a small showcase of it as part of Crescent Moon Theatre's lighting workshop. It was just a play reading then, this version is full-on, with all other theatrical aspects. 

What was the research process?

The significant part of the process was a great deal of research in order to understand the real events. We read a lot. We watched a lot of movies, for example, Iv Charbonneau-Ching's documentary film Cambodia, After Farewell and Rithy Panh's documentary S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine. And then we shared the information and talked before we began the rehearsal process.

Can you talk more about the characters of you and Saifah?

There are only two characters: a man and a woman. They are like representatives of all those photographs of prisoners kept and displayed at The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum so the presentation of this story is fairly simple; it's a conversation of these two characters. It's really difficult, however, because the events were such painful experiences and memories. The play is very short and still, without special technical effects. A lot of focus was put into the understanding of these characters' contexts and wounds during 1975-1979. We actors are just these containers carrying contexts and feelings those victims had been through.


S-21

is staged today and tomorrow at Crescent Moon Theatre, Pridi Banomyong Institute, at 7pm and 8pm. Tickets cost 350 baht. Call 081-929-4246 or 086-797-1445.

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