Andrew Hollister (AH), UW second-year MA in Southeast Asian Studies student, sits down with fellow student colleague, John Tran (JT), to discuss his research travels during the summer of 2022 in Cambodia. Andrew received funding for the trip from the Henry Luce Foundation through the Southeast Asia Center and was also a recipient of the Center’s research and travel grants. Below, Andrew reflects on how different this experience was compared to the other occasions he has been back to Cambodia.
JT: Can you provide some details about your research trip? Where did you go and for how long?
AH: I went to Phnom Penh, Cambodia for three months over the summer. I received funding initially to attend the critical archival studies workshop at the Bophana Center, co-organized by UW’s own Professor Jenna Grant and our Southeast Asia librarian Judith Henchy with the Center for Khmer Studies. From there, I was free to stay and work on my own thesis research. I mostly stayed in Phnom Penh but took the opportunity to visit the Center for Khmer Studies campus in Siem Reap and to visit Battambang.
JT: What were your research goals going into the trip and how did they change, if at all, while you were abroad? In reflecting back now that you’re stateside, how do your accomplishments compare with the expectations going into the research trip?
AH: Going into the trip, I had some very clear ideas about how I would study film audiences, in particular those for independent/alternative films. This thinking was largely inspired by Jasmine Nadua Trice’s 2021 book City of Screens, in which she conducts a wide-ranging study of film audiences in Manila, discussing things like distribution networks, taste cultures, and the formations of distinct movie-going publics. Shortly after arriving in Phnom Penh, I realized that very little of what her work could feasibly be replicated in Cambodia as alternative film and its audience is much too small at the moment and distribution in the country is also minimal. These revelations pushed my research into a smaller scope examination of the community of filmmakers and artists itself and back toward the international distribution that currently dominates that scene.
JT: As I recall, you have been in the process of exploring your desire to focus on film studies since the start of our MA program. It appears that you have clearly situated yourself in this area now without much doubt. Can you describe the evolution of this process and how did this trip help, or hinder, that progress?
AH: Yes, I have been slowly drawn into film studies since the beginning of this program and initially resisted it a little. This was in part due to somewhat of a disinterest in the familiar close readings of films and my stronger interest in the social formations in which films are made. My interest in film always had a more anthropology bias and I struggled with finding the appropriate mix. In Cambodia, however, spending time with the artists and communities I was interested in and learning from them on multiple levels convinced me not to worry so much. There was less any kind of evolution and more simply reaching acceptance and an understanding that film studies and anthropology both have a space for my interests.
JT: It is my understanding that you have been to Cambodia on other occasions. In fact, you were born there. How was this time different? Was it your first where research was the primary focus? What surprised you the most about researching abroad?
AH: I think going there with a defined goal like research or business changes things quite fundamentally. For one, the analytical demands of academic work changed the way I understood life in Phnom Penh. For better or worse, it’s difficult to simply be and experience the city from the simpler, less complicated perspectives I held before. This was actually only my third time visiting Cambodia since moving away in 2001. Once right after graduating from high school (14 years later) and once right after graduating from college. Research aside, this time was different for how long I stayed. Three months is enough time to transition from “visiting” mode to “living here” mode, and that completely changes the way you experience day-to-day life. As for what surprised me the most, that would probably be the reciprocal interest people showed in my research. As obvious as it may sound, I was definitely caught a little off guard that anyone was interested in what I was doing.
JT: What preparations did you make for this trip? Did you find your language training thus far sufficient while in Cambodia?
AH: My preparations were admittedly a little basic. I had my broad research goals and list of places I wanted to go, people I wanted to meet, but everything else was mostly figuring it out as I went along. I do have the privilege of an extensive support network of family in the country so I had plenty of help getting settled. That support was incredibly important as a new MA student with very little idea of how to actually do most of what I wanted to do and helped me find the space to learn while doing. My language training certainly helped, and it was a brand new experience with many of my non-English speaking relatives, but it was generally not a major factor in my research. Many artist spaces are just so dependent on English that Khmer was never a major factor though I did also attend Khmer-language events. I am planning to continue studying, however, both to fulfill my personal goal of fluency and to expand my research capability.
JT: What was your most memorable non-research related experience?
AH: One of my most memorable experiences was basically like a scene from a movie. While I was in Phnom Penh, I was tasked with sourcing some traditional ballet crowns for our local Khmer Community of Seattle King County to use for their youth dance program. These proved to be quite difficult to find as they require incredibly detailed and intricate craftsmanship to produce. I enlisted the help of my aunt and another fellow grad student to search for these and after an increasingly futile day of searching local markets for these crowns, I suggested, partially joking, that we ought to ask around at the Royal University of Fine Arts. This “joke” eventually led to my aunt charging into the dance department with two mortified grad students in tow, where she befriended a master dance teacher and, ultimately, that was my hook up for professional quality crowns. It was also a lesson that sometimes you have to be a little bold.
JT: Finally, do you recommend a summer research trip to others?
AH: Of course! I’d also recommend being flexible and open to spontaneity—at least in my case, very little went according to my pre-trip plan and that was perfectly fine. You never know who you’ll meet and what opportunities will find you. For example, the chance discovery of the Cambodia International Film Festival early in my trip was quite transformative, opening up a new path for research and connecting me with film workers and film fans. Many of the people I met, in addition to graciously sharing their knowledge, became genuine friends over the course of the summer. So yes, do summer research, keep an open mind, and have some fun with it—it’s a real privilege to get to do this!