My first trip to South East Asia. Bali. I was there with my ex-wife, an actress in a popular TV soapy, and Dave, a friend who had recently become the world’s highest-winning television quiz show champ. We didn’t venture far. It was enough to lie on the beach at Legian, having our every whim catered for – and read. With absolutely nothing to do, my urban-wracked brain calmed, allowing a delightfully refreshed ability to concentrate. I was reading books at an astonishing rate – one or two a day. I can’t recall any of them now, except for one: Swimming to Cambodia by Spalding Gray.
Swimming to Cambodia is not a work of fiction. Rather it is an edited transcript of a theatre piece performed by Spalding Gray, an actor, playwright, screenwriter, and monologist. And, it’s as a monologist that he is best known, sitting at a table in front of the audience with nothing but a glass of water, a notebook, and a mic. Minimalist theatre. Gray’s monologue Swimming to Cambodia relates the story of his involvement as an actor in the film, The Killing Fields, director Roland Joffe’s film about the Khmer Rouge and the experiences of three journalists: Cambodian Dith Pran, New York Times correspondent, Sydney Schanberg, and British journalist Jon Swain. Gray plays a small role in the film as the assistant to the American ambassador to Cambodia.
During his Swimming to Cambodia monologue, Gray gives a potted history of the United States’ ‘secret’ war against Cambodia and subsequent rise of the Khmer Rouge. It goes something like this: Cambodia allows the Ho Chi Minh trail to enter eastern Cambodia along it border with Vietnam; the US begins a secret (done without the approval of the American congress) five year “carpet” bombing campaign against Cambodia; it is estimated that 25% of the enemy is killed (interestingly, the US military’s own psychological warfare unit during that war determined that killing only 10% of an enemies forces can result in “profound psychological damage”); the Khmer Rouge, hiding out in the jungles of northern Cambodia, links up with and is trained by the Viet Cong and Pathet Lao; eventually the US loses the war and leaves Vietnam, the Khmer Rouge comes under the leadership of Pol Pot, who while receiving a education in France read Marx and became equally enamored with back-to-the-land Rousseau-ism and peasant-as-proletariat Maoism; and on 17 April 1975, the bombed-to-madness child-soldiers that made up the Khmer Rouge (the vast majority of the Khmer Rouge soldiers were boys and girls under 18 years old) enters Phnom Penh and begins a hellish reign of terror which lasts 4 years and kills – according to the most commonly accepted estimates – 1.5 million people out of a population of 7.1 million, or one in five Cambodians.
None of this left much of an impression on me as I lay on that beach in Bali in 1986. I like to think that it is because the numbers were too staggering, the human-toll too horrible to contemplate. But, the truth is that I was far more interested in Spalding Gray the actor and artist, the notion of the monologue as a form of theatre, and if I, as actor recently out of drama school and getting absolutely zero work, might be able to conjure up something similar. I wasn’t alone. By the end of the 80s, with Spalding Gray’s continuing output, his zeitgeist popularity, and the film of Swimming to Cambodia (directed by Jonathan Demme) hitting the art-houses, plenty of other out-of-work actors had the same idea. By 1989, Sydney theatre seemed to be awash with confessional Spalding-Gray-types with Aussie accents. I was driving a taxi.
I have now visited the “Killing Fields” (known in Cambodian as Choeung Ek ) over 15 times. I seen the 5,000 plus human skulls that lie behind glass in the memorial Buddhist stupa – many, many times. I have wandered the “fields” – many, many times; where one may very easily dislodge some half-buried tattered and faded cloth, a human tooth, or a bone fragment with a misplaced foot. Just as many times, I have been to S-21 (known in Cambodian as Tuol Sleng), the former high-school in downtown Phnom Penh which served during the period of the Khmer Rouge as a prison and place of torture. Nearly 17,000 people are known to have entered Tuol Sleng; of these only twelve are known to have survived.
The reason that I have visited both places so often is that between 2005 – 2009, I led study tours down the Mekong River from Chiang Kong to Luang Prabang, flying to Siam Reap (Angkor Wat), then to Phnom Penh – followed by a speedboat into the Mekong Delta and finally a bus to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). After dinner each night the group would listen to a lecture from a leading South East Asian expert or academic. One of the lecturers who had the deepest effect on me was Dr. Leakthina Chan-Pech Ollier, a Cambodian academic who left her country of birth at the age of ten, just before the arrival of the Khmer Rouge into Phnom Penh. Dr. Thina had lived in the United States from that age, eventually receiving a PhD in French literature from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). She had returned to Cambodia and was now living in Phnom Penh. I had the good fortune to hear her talk many times.
Dr. Thina was extraordinarily good speaker (full of fascinating digressions as many of the best lecturers are); her lectures, however, were often met with a degree of disapproval from the group. The reason for this was that Dr. Thina had been rigorously researching the commonly accepted numbers of deaths during the Khmer Rouge period and had concluded that the number from direct killing (e.g. torture and murder) was far less than was the commonly accepted number, and that the number of indirect deaths from, what might be called “mis-adventure” (e.g. starvation and disease), was much higher. What I found most interesting about this was how strongly the group (and, as I would later find out, many other academics and writers on Cambodia) reacted. It was obvious that there was much invested in this particular narrative, whether or not it might be correct. It was my understand also that Dr. Thina’s focus was not so much on the preciseness of those terrible numbers, but rather on the power of the narrative itself. Cambodia was (and still is) caught between two dominant narratives: that of its ancient greatness during the period of the Angkor empire, and that of the modern-day horror of the Khmer Rouge. Without a loosening of these dominant narratives, it is very difficult, if not impossible, for Cambodia to construct fresh narratives and new national identities. Dr. Thina’s approach was Foucault-ian, an attempt to find a way in which to locate the ruptures in these narratives, and thus hopefully exceed their constraints. The point to be made was not quantitative, but emancipatory.
Sometime in 2009, returning from a tour, I got a phone call from the head office in the US: Could I ask Dr. Thina to “tone it down a bit”? No. I couldn’t. Thus my career in educational tourism came to a close. Five years earlier, I was shocked to hear of Spalding Gray’s suicide. He had thrown himself from the Staten Island Ferry after a long bout of depression brought on from the injuries that he has sustained in a car accident in Ireland in 2001. Haing S. Ngor, who, after surviving the horrors of the Khmer Rouge had won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Dith Pran in The Killing Fields, was murdered in 1996 by a Los Angeles street-gang when he refused to surrender the gold locket which held a picture of his wife – a picture that he had torn from her identity card after she was taken away never to be seen again, and which he kept hidden – at great personal risk – during the years of his forced labour in a Khmer Rouge work camp.
Very worthwhile is director Steven Soderbergh’s (Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Traffic, Erin Brockovich, Che, Ocean’s Eleven, Ocean’s Twelve, Ocean’s Thirteen) documentary on the life and work of Spalding Gray; And Everything Is Going Fine.