31 // 30.06.21

Allison Chhorn

Lineage and heritage, in-between spaces, belatedness, familiarity and alienation, family ties, uncertain narratives, belonging and becoming.

“Long memory still remembers, but short memory keeps forgetting,” reads the Mother in Allison Chhorn’s short film Missing. The line, which is from Monica Sok’s poem “Letter to the Moon Regarding False Intimacy,” feels like a corruption – or perhaps even a perversion – of Pablo Neruda’s 1924 poem “Tonight I Can Write (The Saddest Lines)”: “Love is so short, forgetting is so long” wrote the Chilean poet. The act of forgetting, of burying trauma, is a lifelong exercise. Sok understands that while our short memories have the miraculous ability to short-circuit pain in order to protect us, our long memories are not so easily fooled.

The Mother recites this phrase while gazing at a photograph of her and her best friend as teenage girls. The young women are mirror images of each other, dressed identically in white shirts and black skirts, positioned around an altar adorned with flowers and a cross.  Chhorn cuts to an out-of-focus image of an iPad, a blurry finger scrolling through a reel of pictures. An eagle-eyed viewer might catch colours and shapes, but the pictures pass too quickly for the viewer to register any individual details. Like a memory that has been tampered with, the only thing left is an impression.

Chhorn’s short drama centres around a mother and a daughter, driven apart by distance and separated by time zones. “My night is your morning” reads a subtitle, as a butterfly bats its wings outside on a sunny day. Though Chhorn shoots in the manner of an observational documentary, the film is scripted with fictional characters. Except that, in casting her mother Lim Chhorn as the film’s maternal presence, and Cambodian-American poet Sok as the daughter, she invites a more personal reading.

Cambodian-Australian Chhorn was provoked by a photo she saw of her mother and her mother’s best friend in the Khao-I-Dong refugee camp. The friend moved to California, then disappeared. Chhorn came across a Facebook group called “Missing People From the Khmer Rouge,” where members would post the last family photo they had of everyone together. In her film, the image of the photograph transforms into the view from a train. It’s night time and trees can be heard rushing past. Then Chhorn cuts to a slab of wet pavement.

In Missing, the daughter craves her mother’s closeness, but the heaviness of generational loss is too huge a block to shift. Never mind the buzzing cicadas and the bright sunlight. The distance between them is “no accident.” “Have you eaten yet? Eaten food?” asks the Mother, not realising that the daughter has just prepared a meal, chopping and sautéing an onion.

Chhorn connected with Sok after reading her essay “On Fear, Fearlessness and Intergenerational Trauma,” in which Sok explains that for her family to live they had to forget. Her mother chose not to tell her about the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror – about the loved ones she had lost, the horrors she had lived through. Sok is haunted by her mother’s refusal to speak, by the gaping hole in her family history. “How do you go towards that suffering in your writing when it also leads you and others to trauma?” she asks. She read Audre Lorde’s paper “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action” and was stirred by Lorde’s assertion that there is no good moment to speak. “We have been socialised to respect fear more than our own need for language and definition, and while we wait in silence for that final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us.”

It reminds me of a line spoken by the narrator towards the end of Rithy Panh’s 2013 documentary The Missing Picture, a heart-piercing tribute to resilience and survival based on Panh’s experiences as a 13-year-old in an internment camp run by the Khmer Rouge.  “Sometimes, a silence is a scream.”

Simran Hans is a film critic based in the UK writing for The Observer, Dazed, New Statesman, VICE and more.

About Allison Chhorn

Allison Chhorn is a Cambodian Australian filmmaker with a background in Visual Arts. Her work explores themes of migrant displacement and postmemory.

Artist's website