Adelaide-born Cambodian-Australian artist Allison Chhorn’s short films contain blurred and abstracted images of people. While she usually strays from filming the faces of her human subjects, their shadowy bodies belong close to home: her artistic engagement is an act of empathy with migrant displacement, intergenerational trauma, and the tricks of memory in her own family.
Consider Chhorn’s 2021 Blind Body, a 15-minute experimental documentary featuring her grandmother Kim Nay, a survivor of the Khmer Rouge, the brutal regime that murdered up to two million people between 1975 and 1979 in Cambodia. The film’s Khmer title translates as “body with darkened eyes”.
Chhorn employed a small DSLR video camera to create an impressionistic portrait of her grandmother, now in her late 80s and long partially blind. “I tried to imagine what it might have been like in her experience, not being able to see, seeing shapes very abstractly,” Chhorn says. “Then also focusing more on sound, as a way to map her space.”
Kim Nay has imparted only fragments of her experiences in her homeland under Pol Pot’s dictatorial control to her granddaughter, “because of the language barrier. I don’t really understand the Khmer language, [just] bits of it”, says Chhorn.
There is a mnemonic dichotomy at play between past and present: “Even though she is elderly and has signs of dementia, her long-term memory is very strong, and she remembers stories from more than 40 years ago. At other times, I can see her short-term memory is failing, and she has trouble remembering things she did just a minute ago.”
Some family members disappeared during the Khmer Rouge period, “the exact details of how they were lost are still unknown”, says Chhorn. Others were separated and later reunited. Chhorn’s family came to Australia by plane in 1984 after several years in a refugee camp.
Emerging from her visual arts studies at the University of South Australia, Chhorn realised that locations, equipment, and people—her family—were within reach to make films on her own “in a very DIY, low-key way”.
Chhorn’s seven-minute film Missing, also from 2021, features a photograph of her mother and her mother’s missing friend from the Khao-I-Dang camp, which opened on the Thai-Cambodian border in 1979. It was a huge compound of bamboo and thatched houses that sheltered nearly 140,000 refugees at its peak before finally closing in 1993.
“There were several friends she made in the camp; they all learnt how to sew together,” says Chhorn. “Then when they all migrated to other countries, particularly Australia, the United States and Canada, they all lost touch for a moment. A few years later, they reconnected. But one particular friend, she [Chhorn’s mother] hasn’t been able to track down again.”
In her latest work, Skin Shade Night Day at Adelaide Contemporary Experimental (ACE), Chhorn herself is the abstracted figure in the multi-channel video installation, performing rituals such as gardening and cooking, all in a shade house. “It’s about me re-performing those rituals and activities,” she says, a means of “embodying empathy” with “what is normally considered lower-class laborious skills and work”.
The shade house in the work was inspired by seeing a family friend’s large shade house, around 20-metres-long by five-metres-wide, during a trip to Darwin. Previously, her own family had a farming business based in greenhouses, which are hot and humid, but a shade house allows greater ventilation. “The purpose of the shade house is to protect the plants inside, and I see that as a direct metaphor for a domestic house, and the way that families create protection, ways that nurture the children and help them grow.”
There is intergenerational trauma, says the artist. “Even though we didn’t have the traumatic experiences my parents went through, I did some research into the newer generation, which can be more susceptible to anxiety in general and not be able to deal with it in normal ways.”
When she turned 18 (Chhorn is now 30), the artist visited Cambodia, “and it was a real culture shock, having been brought up in Australia. The stark poverty everywhere, even in the city. I know it’s been developed more recently, but it’s still a developing country.” After more than a decade away, Chhorn is preparing to return to show her films Blind Body, Missing and The Plastic House at the 11th Cambodia International Film Festival in Phnom Penh in late June and early July.
“To other Cambodians, they feel very appreciative of seeing their own culture displayed on screen,” says Chhorn, “and then with other audiences who are non-Cambodians, even though they don’t see any similarities with the cultural aspects, they resonate closely with the other themes: grief, anticipatory grief, isolation, and the psychological states as well.”