Allison Chhorn: Exploring the Silence
Through her first exhibition for the Cambodia International Film Festival, House Shadows, Allison Chhorn presented a 10-work photo series as well as three short films screened at the festival, called ‘Blind Body,’ ‘Plastic House,’ and ‘Missing’. Her work explores the trauma, migration, displacement and cultural heritage she has observed with her parents and in her own life as a second-generation Cambodian Australian.
A Quiet Beginning
Chhorn first studied Visual Arts, specialising in painting, while she was at university. Eventually, she began to explore many mediums, including photography, installation, and film.
Increasing recognition of her art led her to become aware of her surroundings in Adelaide. “There wasn’t a big Cambodian community in Adelaide as much as in Melbourne or Sydney, Chhorn stated. “But my parents had other Cambodian friends they would stick with – always socialising and buying fruits and vegetables from them.”
Growing up in a predominantly white neighborhood and educational system in Adelaide, South Australia, Chhorn lead a quiet life and would often have to explain her ethnicity. “If people asked where I’m from, I’d have to explain I was born here and that my parents came from Cambodia, and that Cambodia was near Vietnam because they didn’t know where it was,” Chhorn explained. “Growing up, there’s a sense of shame with your family’s culture and as a result, you don’t really want to talk about it or have anything to do with it when you’re with your friends.”
Like many children of refugees, Chhorn was reminded to be grateful for what she has in life. “My parents have always told me about what they went through during the Khmer Rouge since I was young, but always as a warning or to be grateful for what I have”, Chhorn said. She was often reminded about what little food others had to eat.
“When I was young I just brushed that aside, as if it had no effect on me and as if all migrant parents went through that, Chhorn recalled. “But as I got older, I started to listen more, piecing together these stories to understand what makes them who they are now. I realised the reason they still hoard and collect everything to this day, is because they lost all their possessions and lived 4 years with nothing.”
Breaking the Silence
Chhorn visited Cambodia for the first time 10 years ago, awakening her curiosity about her culture and the parents who left everything behind. “The first time was a culture shock – seeing the traffic and undeveloped roads and a lot of poor people coming up to you because you look like a foreigner,” Chhorn recalled. “I didn’t really have expectations but I was still surprised to see how people lived in Cambodia just because it was so different from Australia.”
Researching more about the country and its history, Chhorn observed that her parents’ lifestyle has barely changed since leaving Cambodia more than 40 years ago. Through gardening and working with her hand on daily tasks, this ritual gave the artist time to talk to her parents about what they had endured under the regime of the Khmer Rouge. For many years, she never noticed how many in her parents’ generation have continued to still be in survival mode, resulting in patterns of violence, paranoia and hoarding. As gardening becomes a tool of therapy for her parents, filmmaking has become a way for Chhorn to understand her parents better.
As part of the House Shadows exhibit, she explores the rituals and daily routines of her Cambodian-Australian family, including cooking, gardening, collecting/hoarding, and physical labor. The photos showcase the impact of migration and displacement, and how cultural practices and rituals by migrants living in Australia continue as a way of preserving heritage.
Chhorn’s film, ‘The Plastic House’, is a 45-minute story of her exploring this type of therapy on her parents and herself. In the film, a lone figure tends to a greenhouse after the death of her parents. With its visuals, sound design, and slow pace, viewers are transported into a meditative state as the figure reflects on her parents and gardening. Almost no dialogue appears in the film, mirroring the divide between generations within the Khmer diaspora.
“I was speaking to another Cambodian diaspora filmmaker about what their family thought about their work,” Chhorn said. “And their parents were the same as mine – they didn’t really say anything. Or maybe they couldn’t because the kind of films we make is a language they don’t understand and cinema is an art form they’re not really interested in. But even if they don’t understand, I think it’s more important for them to support us because that’s always been a struggle when Khmer children want to pursue the arts.”
Chhorn has felt the sense of intergenerational trauma her whole life, but research shows trauma can be inherited because of genetic changes in DNA. “Reading about it and the studies they’ve done on other Cambodian diaspora cemented the fact that it is real and that it is something other Cambodians share,” Chhorn stated. “ I read that some second-generation have an inability to deal with new traumas resulting in depression and anxiety, which I’ve observed in other family members. Even though they didn’t experience the traumas their parents went through, they still have similar emotional responses that are inherited in their bodies. My projects are mostly based on personal observation and creating worlds based on these fears and anxieties.”
Seeking More Voices
During the CIFF, Chhorn shared her filmmaking skills and experiences with others. While attending the festival, Chhorn visited the elegant Rosewood Hotel in Phnom Penh for a discussion with other women in the film industry. “ It’s strange to come back now and see so many high-rise buildings populating the city,” Chhorn said. “And to see the disparity between rich and poor has only gotten worse.”
As a recipient of the 2022 Porter Street Commission, ACE’s annual award supporting new artwork by South Australian artists, Chhorn plans to continue researching and filming stories about the Cambodian diaspora that reflect the experience of people who have lived with many unspoken things for years.
“At this point, I’m open to a lot of possibilities. I’ve met so many artists and filmmakers living in Cambodia who’ve made really inspiring work. I love learning about other Cambodian diasporas,” Chhorn said. “Before the pandemic in 2019, I travelled to California and visited other Cambodian people there. It was fascinating to see people doing very familiar Khmer things while at the same time adapting to their environment. So I would love to travel to Japan or France and see the Cambodian communities living there.”
Written by Sotheavy Nou