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Thứ Sáu, 15 tháng 6, 2012

How painful is it to relive and express your pain in public? How brave do you need to be in order to subject yourself to public judgement?

Contemporary art is catching up in Vietnam. Every month, there would be some events that relate to this specific form of art, be it a painting exhibition, a dance performance, or a play with unusual structure or interactive format. While creating and enjoying contemporary art is becoming more and more trendy, using it to present and tackle social issues is even more fashionable.

"Inviting myself to hope" is a very beautiful translation of the title of a famous song by Trinh Cong Son
Tôi ơi đừng tuyệt vọng" literally means "Hey me, don't despair". While the Vietnamese phrase is an encouragement, resulting from a bad outcome, the English version is a positive attitude. These are the name of a contemporary art performance put together by CSAGA* and a few big sponsors. The actresses are advertised as unprofessional performers and former victims of domestic violence. Now, after participating in a project aiming at supporting domestic violence victims for a few years, they have gathered enough courage to participate in a show about their own sorrow.

The play sent shiver down my spine many times, especially when the actresses expressed their reactions to violence. They crawled, they rolled, they cried, they screamed, they laughed, they became crazy, they froze, they were so frightened that they lost consciousness. Through the medium of play, they were free to act out their pain, and unlike traditional plays, the line between reality and imagination was blurred to a great extent. This play can be scripted, but all actresses have first hand experience of how being beaten days after days feels like, therefore, the performance transforms itself from a pure play to a recounted story of real events and real emotions.

There is quite clear story line, comparing to other attempts in conveying messages in contemporary art. I am not sure whether the crew wants to make the play as easy to understand as possible (since it aims at the mass audience and to raise awareness, rather than selective cultural elites who like to ponder upon complicated matters) or whether they just have a very urgent message that needs to get through and they can't take the risk of letting the audience draw their own conclusion. Phase one, some women got beaten, they became despaired, the men were shown to be aggressive, addicted to gambling and drinking. Phase two, the women got together, gained strength as a group, reclaimed their power. Phase three, the men realized their mistakes, were sorry for their awful deed, were forgiven by the women, and a happy ending. Everyone danced in the sunlight and the song of Trinh Cong Son was played as background music.

Even though movements and speaking tones were not as refined as those of professionals, I could still recognized some great efforts were made. However, there are two issues that keep coming back to my mind during the play. First, the men were depicted in a very criminal manner, while the women a victim-like manner. The men were all about aggressiveness, cheating, lying, abusing, while the women were only suffering, covering their faces with their hands, crying in the dark and offering their hands, both to their peers and to the men by the end. There was a very hostile distance between the two sexes, as if the men only know how to beat, and the women don't do anything else but crying. Criminalization of the male makes them seem irrational. Why are they the frightening creatures that only beat and abuse, and would why the women stick with them at all? Victimization of the female makes them irrational as well. Why do they only cry and suffer, and why don't they just leave the abusive men? Depicting one sex with all negative traits, namely all the men in the play were abusive and horrifying, makes their violent acts seem innate. They are bad, all of them are bad, nothing else to say. On the other hand, portraying all the women in the play as tolerant and passive make their suffering natural too. More than once, people in the audience commented how Vietnamese women are known and admired for their great tendency to scarify and consider the interest of others before their own. As everyone refers to this virtue as a legacy, it's not a big surprise that women would  internalize the duty to be willing to scarify anything, anytime so much that they forfeit their self-defense system.

However, despite being depicted as evils, the men still didn't bear the responsibility. They were either gambler, drinker or mentally ill. This, to me, is problematic as well, as this portrayal decentres the men from their bad behaviours, providing them a cause to blame. Do only men who drink, gamble and have mental problem beat their wives? Do only these irrational men, who are not always in the best state of their mind, abuse women? Does it mean that men who are in good shape, good mental state will never commit crimes against women? No, absolutely not. Creating a cause to blame is dangerous, because whenever people think of an abusive man, they will think of an external cause that happens to him. A man in the audience actually commented that sometimes men are abusive because they face failure in business, and they vent on their wives. That is a patterned way of getting the men out of the matter, freeing them from guilt, and shifting the blame, if not to the wife, then to an external factor. Then the men play the role of a victim themselves. When they are not seen as a rational being who is in full control of their acts, they can explain away their wrong deeds by claiming victims to their rage, their disappointment, their hot temper, their drunkenness, their greed (to earn money by gambling), or their unstable state of mind.

The play is a nice try in bringing out voices from an usually unheard group in society. I believe that when someone is empowered to speak up about her pain, the pain will subdue. However, a better contextualization is needed. If lots of Vietnamese men beat up their wives, the problem can't be blamed on one or two individual men with drinking or gambling addiction. Yet, they shouldn't be viewed to be bad inside out either. A most humane and sociological way, I think, is to place them among all the norms, beliefs and viewpoints that are so commonplace we forget they contribute a great deal to our daily activities. The men, even when they are perpetrators, shouldn't be separated from their social context. No one would beat their wives if they know, and sincerely believe that it's wrong. They must have some reasons and justifications for their acts. To dig deeper into these underlying assumptions and norms will require even more efforts, time and efforts. Meanwhile, at least the play "Inviting myself to hope" has achieved its main goal of spreading the message, because at the debut show the Youth Theatre's 600 seats were filled.

 * Centre of Studies and Applied Science for Gender - Family - Women and Adolescence

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