LYNN — When Cyntheara Tham told her parents that Raw Art Works was sending her to Cambodia to make a documentary about their homeland, they paid little attention. In June 2016, when she started getting ready to leave, they said, “What? Are you serious?”
Tham, 19, knew her parents had fled the country in the 1970s and that her grandfather “went missing” during the battle with the Khmer Rouge. Her parents met and married in the Boston area and now are part of a large Cambodian community in Lynn.
Born in the United States, Tham cried when she got the news. “They wanted to send my friend and me to Cambodia,” she said. “I had never been there, and my family has never been back.”
Two other Raw film students from Lynn also traveled to their families’ homelands — Guatemala and the Dominican Republic — to explore their roots for the “Going Home” series. Meanwhile, back in Lynn, about 200 young artists age 7 to 19 worked on displays showing how a house is transformed into a home where traditions and culture are shared.
In the process, they also explored issues of inequality, social justice, and what it means to be an American.
SOAR, a group of high school graduates, made birds and nests depicting what encourages them to bust out of their shells and go forward into the world as individuals. Boyz Lync, a group for middle-school boys, chose two images showing a view into their homes and how they would protect them.
The 200 pieces of artwork created by 20 groups are on exhibit at Raw Arts Works through mid-April. The public also can view the three films shot abroad at the gallery.
The two-year Home project was funded by a by a $225,000 grant from Adobe Systems, the international software company. Raw was one of seven worldwide recipients of the Adobe Creative Catalyst Award, which includes technology and a scholarship program that provides education grants to students pursuing a creative path in higher education.
“To be one of the seven to get a creative catalyst grant was a huge honor,” said Chris Gaines, artistic director of the Real to Reel Film School, which he founded at Raw in 2000.
So far, five Raw students have won scholarships, including Daymian Mejia.
Born in South Carolina, Mejia, 19, traveled to the Dominican Republic with Raw staff and fellow student Charles “Tony” Peguero. While Mejia chose to focus on what home means to a young Dominican baseball player who has Major League aspirations — like former Red Sox stars Pedro Martinez and David Ortiz — he also found family and strong connections.
“Kids go to baseball camp all day,” said Mejia. “That’s something they can relate to as home.”
Mejia’s film, “The Field,” focuses on Khristopher Diaz in the town of Bani, where he does farm work to support his family before going to baseball practice, which he said “Es mi vida” (“It’s my life”).
His Uncle Elvin picked Mejia up at his hotel. “He showed me land that my family grew up on and introduced me to many cousins. I’d go back to see more of my family. Elvin was an incredible host.”
Mejia is pursuing a career in filmmaking. “Without Raw, I wouldn’t have considered doing something that I actually love,” he said. “I was thinking of going to Salem State for computer science, but it wasn’t the life I wanted to live.”
Tham and a Raw crew journeyed to Cambodia last summer. In her film, “Dreams of Cambodia,” she is shown sitting alone amid temple ruins, reflecting. “I feel like I’m in a dream, a dream I had often growing up, thinking about where my parents came from and the people we left behind,” she said.
But nothing compared with meeting the nephew and niece of her grandfather who disappeared during the civil war. Living in the ancient city of Battambang, they are elderly and possess little material wealth. They embraced Tham as if they had known her all their lives.
“I never knew about them until this trip, but they made such a big impression on me. [My family] used to all live together until the Khmer Rouge came, and then they separated,” said Tham, a sophomore biology student at Salem State University.
Marylys Merida, 19, created the third film in the “Going Home” series, “Manos Abierta en esta Tierra” (Open Hands in this Land), in Guatemala.
Snapshots and video footage the three students captured with 360-degree virtual reality cameras were projected on three buildings around Lynn, using new technology provided by Adobe. Raw also threw a street party to celebrate.
“The Adobe grant gave us the ability to embrace technology,” said Gaines. “Now our students can build artist portfolios that live online along with traditional art.”Bette Keva can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.