The next generation of Cambodians is being introduced to the darkest part of the country’s history with a new experimental theater project called “The Courageous Turtle.” The play will target students in high school and universities as well as community spaces all over the country. Two actors take 45 minutes for each performance, which they hope will spark discussion about the Khmer Rouge during a 20-minute feedback session between audience members after the show. Those sessions will be facilitated by the NGO Youth for Peace and a genocide survivor.
The ongoing trials at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Court of Cambodia (ECCC) has been open about where their efforts seem to be falling short. They noticed that in spite of their work to provide justice to the survivors and the memories of the Cambodian people who died during the Khmer Rouge regime, many of the country’s youth actively choose to ignore it in favor of a focus on moving the country forward.
“For the first time in Cambodia, school theater is used as an educational tool,” Nico Mesterharm, the director of Meta House, said during a press conference. Alongside Smart Axiata and the ministry of education, ECCC and Khmer Arts Action (KAA), he hopes that the story of a turtle can awaken an intergenerational dialogue about the dark history of Cambodia in schools.
The play takes its theme from the Khmer proverb, “the turtle only makes progress if it sticks out its neck,” highlighting the need for courage when trying to move forward. The story follows a high school student named Panha, who discovers his family history by coincidence. Through his pet turtle, he is able to cope with the insecurities and the injustice of history. The play was meant to encourage students to talk with survivors of the regime and to better understand the older generation with tolerance and the need for civil courage.
Executive director of KAA Soung Sopheak was asked to direct the play. His organization believes that using Khmer culture and art can be a way to increase intergenerational dialogue and help create positive change for communities. He said that since the project is being presented in a classical form, it will challenge young people’s ignorance of the past.
Mr. Soung felt inspired when theater director Hanna Mueller and Mr. Mesterharm requested his help for the project.
“It teaches young people not only about historical events and present challenges in society. It also demonstrates to them the power of the arts,” Mr. Soung said.
He remembers learning about the Khmer Rouge as a child, seeing pictures of the regime’s awful acts in his textbooks, but feels that now, the entire period is glossed over in modern school books. Many students in high school and university admitted to him that they did not know much about their own history, with some even denying such a travesty had ever happened, he said. This alarming concern over the country’s lack of education on its own history also prompted the project’s coordinators to take action.
The play’s script was written by Sokyou Chea. As a filmmaker and someone who grew up abroad and in Cambodia, she knew that writing a play telling the history of Cambodia’s genocide from a balanced perspective would be hard to do. Instead, she took a different approach by focusing on contemporary Cambodia. Her mission was to incorporate all the angles of the time period into a dramatization that would allow people to learn from the past in order to build a better present and future as a nation.
“What we want the audience to take from the story is that the fate of the country relies on every individual in society,” Ms. Chea said. “When we are on the right track, it will lead us to prosperity and one of the ways to start is to promote moral and civil courage in the community and in the world in which we live.”
Challenging the stereotypical images of the Khmer Rouge as monsters and elderly people as submissive temple worshippers, Ms. Chea wanted to bring a sense of reality to the students. “While writing it, I also bore in mind how to make it as fun as possible,” Ms. Chea said. “And not another lecture for students.”
The main themes Ms. Chea wanted to emphasize to students were courage and morality. “Otherwise, you think the Khmer Rouge soldiers had no courage when they took over the country?” Ms. Chea asked. “They had courage. The difference between them and what I am trying to say is that what they did was wrong and immoral. Courage without morals is not good and that is what I want emphasized.”
A scene from the theater project, “The Courageous Turtle” at a press conference at Meta House on Tuesday.
KTs/ Nou Sotheavy