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The Tree of Life: A Khmer Short Film

Recent UH Mānoa graduate Tricia Khun (BS, Molecular Cell Biology, Spring 2019) presented her short documentary The Tree of Life: A Khmer Short Film at the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) Spring Showcase on May 3, 2019. The film is available to watch below, or on Vimeo. Ms. Khun says of the film:

I grew up in a Cambodian American family who rarely discussed the past, and always felt disconnected from my cultural roots. Since high school, I have sought to understand my family’s history by asking three questions: “Who was in my family tree?” “What happened to my family?” and “What does it mean to be Cambodian?” The Cambodian-American identity is largely defined by genocide, which doesn’t provide a space for healing, reconnection, and reconciliation for the Khmer people. My research takes a different approach by using the palm tree as a way to celebrate the beauty of being Cambodian and the subtleties of life in Cambodia.

Filming at Angkor Wat. Photo provided by Tricia Khun.

The Tree of Life interweaves archival video footage and pictures of Khmer lifestyle and history from the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC CAM) with present-day video footage taken around Cambodia. I envision my film as a way to help restore family connections and bridge the gap between the older and younger generations in that it provides a space for healing, remembrance, and discussion. Using Cambodia’s national tree, the palm tree, as the main character, the film explores identity about what it really means to be Cambodian in a country where past traditions meet modern reinvention and attempts to be a reminder that no matter which part of the tree one comes from—the roots, trunk, or leaves—we all play an important role in the healing and growth of Khmer society and our shared humanity.

At the Documentation Center of Cambodia’s Sleuk Rith Institute. According to Ms. Khun, DC CAM is “the main place that helps Cambodians learn more about their past history and has further opened up conversations through genocide education”. Photo provided by Tricia Khun.

You can watch the film below and also on Vimeo.

In addition to her studies in molecular cell biology, Ms. Khun is part of the Home Garden Network (HGN) team, whose mission is to enable regular families to establish edible home gardens; the power of this project to bring families together is referenced in the film. She conducted research, also for UROP, on the impact of the HGN program on families’ well-being and community resilience. The project poster is available below:

Ms. Khun is also a writer, having published numerous articles in Ka Leo O Hawaiʻi and Honolulu Civil Beat. For the latter, she wrote a piece called “Finding Grandma in Cambodia, and Finding Home”.

At Ampe Phnom in Kampong Speu. Photo provided by Tricia Khun.

A prolific YouTuber, she has also produced several videos about her journey in learning Cambodian, exploring her identity and her family’s history, and visiting Cambodia for the first time:

Ms. Khun plans to earn an English teaching certification so that she can return to Cambodia and learn more about her roots. Her trip for the UROP film project encompassed “a year’s worth of lessons” in three weeks, but at the same time felt too short. Being able to spend a year or more in her family’s homeland would give her the time to unpack and expand upon the lessons individually.

After that, she plans to study for and take the MCAT, with the goal of attending a medical school with a Master’s in Public Health – Global Health concurrent degree program, and ultimately become a family medicine doctor. During med school she will continue to explore her Cambodian identity and culture, as well as pursue her interest in the literary scene. Her dream school is the University of Washington – Seattle, at which she would not only participate in her dream program but (having been born in Southern California and raised in Hawaiʻi) also be able to experience the leaves changing color in autumn and see real snow for the first time.