Resonating from the shadows

Art June 30, 2014 00:00

By Pawit Mahasarinand
Special to

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French puppet company Les Remouleurs applies many techniques to narrative on human trafficking

Hooked after just a few minutes of Compagnie les Remouleurs’ “Frontieres”, or “Borders” last Monday at the Alliance Fransaise Bangkok, the audience probably gave no more than a passing thought to the sheer talent of these French puppeteers so intent were they on the tale unfolding in front of their eyes.
Using shadow puppet techniques, both traditional and contemporary and drawing on many cultures Les Remouleurs’s true account of an illegal immigrant’s story rolled out like a movie though the audience remained aware that all the images were being created live on stage in front of and behind the white screen. A worthy reminder perhaps that the development of cinema owes a great deal to shadow puppetry. 
In what I’d like to refer to as a signature La Fete moment, a Nang Yai – a large-scale leather-made traditional Thai shadow puppet and the term many Thais use, fittingly, to refer to films –showed an image of a young man running through the woods. Shortly after, the top left part of the puppet was torn apart behind the screen creating another image. Convention has it that a sacred piece of Nang Yai always remains intact and the French troupe respected that rigid tradition while showing us what else is possible in this day and age.
Although the 50-minute performance had no spoken dialogue – the only written language coming in the letter the young man sent to his family saying he’s arrived and doing well in the city – “Borders” spoke out loudly, offering several important social, cultural and political messages. The fact that the puppets of his family members sitting together were lit only in the first and last scenes and remained downstage throughout the performance made the story even more profoundly touching for a family-oriented society like Thailand.
A few days before the Bangkok premiere, hundreds of thousands of illegal foreign immigrant workers were deported and Thailand was downgraded to the lowest tier of countries involved with or ignoring human trafficking. The image of rolling bank notes that popped up on the screen more than a few times in “Borders” was a reminder of Thailand’s equally dismal record in the corruption stakes. “Borders” thus underlined that even if this issue doesn’t directly affect us, we must never simply ignore it.
Integral to the visual images was the myriad of music and sound brilliantly created by multi-instrumentalist Francesco Pastacaldi. 
It was also easy to forget that the complicated visual images were brought to the stage through the efforts of just three puppeteers, the company’s founder and director Anne Bitran included., with many itching to peek behind the white screen and discover how the magic had been created.
The only thing missing was a post-performance discussion. Such a dialogue would have made the evening more complete and fruitful and indeed was incorporated in the troupe’s performances earlier the month in Jakarta and Yogyakarta. It would also have been particularly significant here as “Borders” received a great deal of input from Thai artists.
 “Entr' Ecoles regards croises”, featuring works by Silpakorn University’s Chaiwat Wiansantia and Laura Caillaux from Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux-arts de Paris is at the Alliance Fran