Local artists critical of the US government’s deportation of Cambodian refugees have received accolades for their work from an unlikely source – the White House.
My Asian Americana, a short video produced by Phnom Penh-based media lab Studio Revolt, was announced on Friday as one of 11 finalists in the “What’s Your Story?” Video Challenge launched by the White House Initiative on Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders, a working group formed by the Obama administration to address issues affecting the AAPI community.
“We made the video to challenge the Challenge itself,” says Studio Revolt co-founder and My Asian Americana director Anida Yoeu Ali, adding that she never expected the video to make it this far because of its thorny political subject.
Yoeu Ali, who was born in Cambodia and fled to the US with her family as a child, says she wanted to create a piece that would go beyond the “typical feel-good stories” about Asian- Americans succeeding in the US.
After collaborating closely with deported Cambodians on various Studio Revolt projects and learning about their experiences (the group’s current artist in residence is poet Kosal Khiev, who was deported in 2011), she felt it critical to address the issue of deportations.
“It was about telling these folks’ stories as part of the Asian American political landscape,” says Yoeu Ali.
“It felt like it was being ignored, just like all issues that are a little bit dirty and not easy to understand or handle.”
Last October, the US Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agency reported that nearly 400,000 individuals were removed from the US during its 2011 Fiscal Year – the highest number in the agency’s history.
Although Cambodians represent a tiny portion of that total, their numbers have increased dramatically.
According to the Returnee Integration Support Center (RISC) in Phnom Penh, 87 returnees arrived in 2011 compared to 21 the year before, marking the most US deportations to Cambodia on record.
As previously reported in the Post, most Cambodian refugees who fled to the US during the Khmer Rouge era settled in poor neighbourhoods with significant gang activity, resulting in some youths committing crimes that would make them “deportable” later in life.
These cases make up the vast majority of Cambodian removals, according to RISC.
Critics in both the US and Cambodia, including Studio Revolt, have deemed deportations of refugees unfair, particularly for those who lived their entire lives in the United States and now have children who are US citizens.
My Asian Americana was made to highlight the involuntary nature – the “exile” – of deportees’ lives in Cambodia and to push for change in the administration’s policies, says Yoeu Ali.
The video features a cast of eight Phnom Penh residents; half are Asian-American expats and half are “exiled Americans”, or deportees.
They look into the camera and share memories of their distinctly American childhoods – cartoons, holidays, baseball games – and only in the end reveal their status by declaring that they either can or can’t “go home” to the US.
Thea Som, who works as a production coordinator for Studio Revolt and is featured in the video, was deported in 2009.
In the piece, he recalls a simple moment: driving with his sister to a shopping outlet.
“I wanted it to be something Americans could relate to,” he says.
“We’re as American as anyone there, it’s just that we never got our citizenship.”
More than 200 videos were submitted to the “What’s your story?” contest, and White House staff handpicked the 11 finalists.
These top videos are now subject to a public online vote, and winners will be invited to the White House in March to share their stories.
“I’m hoping we win so there’s a chance for some of us to go and talk about the issue,” says Thea Som.
“Especially in person with the president.”
Ironically, a lifetime bar imposed on those deported from the US means the “exiles” featured in the video would not be able to make the trip to the White House.
My Asian Americana is posted for viewing on the White House’s official website, where votes can be cast until March 1.