Over the past few weeks, I’ve been fortunate to have worked with a crew of stellar artists in putting together the South Asian premiere of Guillermo Calderon’s Villa. It was surreal, not least because the script elegantly tackled some of the self-same issues I grapple with in my academic writing (but people would rather watch a play than read a paper!). I’m especially grateful to Indika Senanayake for putting in a massive effort to bring Calderon and his work to Sri Lanka. After two of the three performances, there was an opportunity for a Q&A with Calderon, one of which included Radhika Coomaraswamy as panellist. The questions (and the answers) were all excellent, so I’ve jotted down some of my notes. Below is the expanded version.
“So art does what art does…” – Macarena
What can art do in the context of conflict?
Seth Powers put this question out there to start off the conversation, and Coomaraswamy brought up three vignettes. The first was of a young child who, when asked to draw a picture, created a detailed landscape of war, replete with helicopters and bombs, but when asked to speak, remained mute. The second was her observation that in Jaffna, the art world was static before 1983, whereas during the war years, everything that was repressed and couldn’t be said found release in street theatre, in poetry, and in evocative artwork like Shanaathanan’s. Thirdly, art that is created after the conflict, including theatre and TV shows, places pressure on leaders to build and re-build.
Calderon similarly noted that theatre allows people to ‘say’ things that they would only admit in private, thereby sparking a discussion. He was also of the opinion that there is a marked difference between the art that is created during war and in the years following. War-time art is optimistic and hopeful, while art created afterward is more retrospective and sober.
“Yes, and there are women who organise and build museums.” – Carla
Why are the protagonists of Villa all women?
This question was asked during both Q&A sessions. Calderon noted that women were subjected to both physical and sexual violence. Rape, in particular, is a particularly insidious kind of violence, because it is a way of ensuring that the women will carry the trauma for the rest of their lives. Many had children born as a result, and it was especially difficult to heal when one’s child bore the likeness of one’s rapist. Contaminating the cause with the DNA of the oppressor was a means by which to quell the uprising. Coomaraswamy similarly recalled a sojourn to East Timor, where she observed a lovable little child who was petted and hugged by all except one woman, who turned out to be the child’s mother – the mother was raped by an Indonesian soldier, and could not bring herself to treat the result of that violence with affection.
Calderon also noted that women tended to take charge of sites like the Villa Grimaldi, even though men and children were also survivors of that time, and indeed, men appeared the more prominent victims. Perhaps, he said, it had something to do with the nature of memory and memorial-making that was taking place at the villa that drew women to the helm. Coomarasway said that in her experience, women tended to be more involved in reconciliation efforts and art initiatives of this kind. One exception was in Sierra Leone, where former child soldiers (all male) worked to created theatre, but it was markedly different from the work of women in its open and shocking depiction of violence. Calderon said that, coming from a family of women and teaching in university, he felt that women tended to make and consume art (he mentioned novels in particular) more voraciously, and Coomaraswamy agreed that audiences for events like Villa boasted a higher percentage of women.
“But Alejandra, Alejandra said I was scared of you…” – Francisca
Why are the women all named Alejandra?
During the Pinochet regime, people got used to hiding their real names (to the extent that, three decades after dictatorship people, are still fearful about talking openly and revealing their political identities). Aliases were common, and Alejandra was the alias of a particularly militant left-wing activist who was tortured, physically and sexually, by the military. According to Calderon, her tormentors would drive around the city with her in tow, and when she saw other activists she would start shaking. These people would then be detained, and the military would tell her that they detained her fellow activists because she had betrayed them, and her only ticket out was if she received protection from the military (for which she would have to give up further names). In this way, she changed sides, and was seen as a symbol of betrayal. The younger generation, however, saw her less as a traitor than a victim, so opinion on her is divided. Thus, Alejandra is a woman is conflict. She is a victim, but tainted. Her position is not black-and-white but ambiguous. People like Alejandra require understanding and compassion.
“But when I tell my boyfriend…he goes all ‘Thorns of Israel’ on me and I end up consoling him.” – Francisca
Does a lot get lost in translation from Spanish to English?
(This answer is a cobbled-together papraphrasing of a lot of views, including mine.) Such is the nature of translation. There are a lot of rhythm patterns that are difficult to replicate in the English version, and some of the absurdity in the original is lost (although I do think William Gregory has done a great job of preserving some of the offbeat humour). The audience is invited to laugh, and then is punished for it later when Carla declares that there is nothing funny about the villa. The translation is British, which has been Americanised and is now being shown in Sri Lanka, so things get lost in the mix. However, the undeniable power of translation is that it allows the play to travel, and to become a kind of travelling memorial. In a way, it is a little sad because so many people all over the world resonate with the message of Villa, but the fact that the play serves as a simultaneously fleeting but permanent memorial is particularly fitting in the absence of a suitable architectural solution. In a sense, the play works through a number of permutations in its use of evocative language, and allows them to somehow co-exist. We got a couple of requests to have the play translated into Sinhala and Tamil as well, so that more Sri Lankans would be able to see and learn from it.
Speaking of actual architectural solutions, the older and younger generations react differently to the issue. The people who endured torture want to have a positive outlook, and tend to support the park, despite its sentimentality. It is an effort to heal, and to embrace a new life. Their children are also traumatised, because these issues have not been publicly and definitively addressed, and continue to be angry about what happened to their parents. They are more in favour of transforming the villa into a harsher, more violent place. In a sense, the play is a way for the younger generation trying to understand what happened in a different way.
Lastly, for more work on the lasting effects of Pinochet’s regime, Nostalgia for the Light was recommended as a compelling documentary to watch.