Catherine Filloux has a good reason to be serious: she has spent the last two decades writing plays that center on genocide and its devastating effect on human life and livelihood. On March 24, at Mansfield Freeman Center for East Asian Studies, she presented two 10-minute clips of her most recent work, “Where Elephants Weep,” a rock opera about a man who has returned to Cambodia after a successful career in the United States, only to find his homeland still entrenched in poverty and political instability that remains from the genocide in 1975. The opera, written and sung in English and Khmer with corresponding subtitles, premiered in Cambodia in November 2008. The English portions of the opera are sung with American rock overtones while the Cambodian parts are performed with more traditional Cambodian accompaniment, which more subtly underlines the distinction between the two cultures and how they attempt to reconcile themselves within the play.
Filloux began writing about survivors of the Cambodian genocide in 1996, with her play “Eyes of the Heart,” about a survivor who is psychosomatically blind. She was inspired to write this play after interviewing a group of psychosomatically blind Cambodian women living in Long Beach. Their stories stuck with her, and Filloux has been attempting to relate the effects of genocide ever since.
Argus: What was it about these psychosomatically blind women that compelled you to talk to them and write about them?
Catherine Filloux: OK, well, the story struck me as intriguing and mysterious in terms of the fact that their brains were working, clinically they could see, but they said that they were blind. There was a group of them, about 150, in Long Beach, California and it led me…that was the kind of the entry point in learning about the Post-Traumatic Stress disorder that was rampant in Cambodian refugee population in the late ’80s-early ’90s. And so it was a way for me to begin to understand what had happened in Cambodia.
A: Was “Eyes of the Heart” your first play about genocide? Can you tell us a little about what it’s about?
CF: Yes, it was my first play about Cambodia and the genocide there. The play is about a woman whose name is Thida San—it’s a character that I made up—who is in her fifties and she is psychosomatically blind, and her brother, whose name is Kim, lives in Long Beach, California. He’s a refugee, he lost his wife in the genocide and he’s bringing up his daughter (whose name is Serei), and they are trying to make a life in California and it is his hope to bring Thida to be with him, and they succeed in doing that. But when she arrives she is completely shut down and blind and she tries to understand what happened to her and there is a doctor, named Doctor Simpson, a female doctor who gets involved in trying to help Thida, but ultimately it is Thida who ends up helping Doctor Simpson. And the trajectory of the story is, as Thida slowly joins the world again through her culture, her religion, her family, and her friendships, she is able to become less isolated, though she doesn’t regain her sight.
A: What did you learn about the U. S. involvement in Cambodia’s genocide?
CF: Well, I knew from the start that Nixon and Kissinger had carpet-bombed Cambodia because of the Vietnam War, and that that had really destroyed areas of Cambodia, creating large craters and holes that filled up during the rainy season and caused malaria, not to mention the destruction of infrastructure in Cambodia. [I knew] that Cambodia wanted very much to remain a neutral country during the Vietnam War but little by little got sucked into it. It was my belief that what happened, what I just described, created part of the imbalance that allowed the Khmer Rouge to come to power.
A: With whom did you collaborate on “Where Elephants Weep”
CF: The composer is Him Sophy and he created the fusion of traditional Cambodian orchestra and Cambodian rock and roll band, and combined traditional Cambodian musical forms with modern musical forms. And Ieng Sithol was the performer and he is a very well known actor/singer in Cambodia.
A: How was that experience different from writing about Cambodian genocide on your own?
CF: Well, music theater pieces that I’ve worked on—the one that I wrote before this was called “The Floating Box”–always involve much more time and much more specific and complex collaborations because you’re bringing in the team, it becomes twice as large or if not twice as large, much larger. Right away you are dealing with collaboration between music and words and that is something that requires a lot of time. You then have, of course, the orchestration of the piece that has to be implemented. And then, in this case it involved two different artistic teams, one which was American and one which was Cambodian so really the piece becomes a cultural exchange in itself.
A: What do you think it meant when the Cambodian government banned “Where Elephants Weep”
CF: Well it was curious because the performances, which were sold out, there were seven [of them]. For the premiere of the performances in Pnomh Penh the government, the Deputy Prime Minister, in fact, gave a speech endorsing the project. He actually was the first person to speak before the premiere. And so, the fact that after it aired on TV it was banned had an absurd level to it to begin with, since they had endorsed it previously. And it is my belief that the reason that was given, that the Buddhist element was not portrayed with enough sacredness, was a pretext for censorship based on the portrayal of certain elements of Cambodian society.
A: What do you hope to achieve by artistically portraying the serious consequences of genocide?
CF: Some of the hope is the idea of never forgetting, of never again, which is a premise that happened after the holocaust—never again. We have a responsibility once we identify a genocide to do something about it, but because of geopolitical and economic reasons, we do not do so and I am attempting to make change through my plays.
A: In the plays that you’ve written and the people you’ve talked to, have you found that the people who have lost so much have managed to still have hope, or are they still picking up the pieces of their lives?
CF: I know many, many survivors who are doing some extraordinary work who are not only hopeful, but deeply inspiring people. The generations, the younger generations, are extremely talented and industrious and proud of their culture.