By Jiny Ung
New York, NY — Kosal Khiev was born in a refugee camp along the Thai-Cambodian border. Only a year old, he and his mother were forced to leave due to the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. Having been separated from his father before being resettled in the US, Khiev continued to face numerous challenges, but as with all deportees, in the eyes of the law his past crime takes precedence over his struggles.
Khiev grew up in Santa Ana, California as a refugee, but lived among crime and poverty at a young age. As a 16-year-old, he was convicted of attempted murder. After serving 14 years in prison he was sent to Cambodia, a country that he and his family fled from during the Khmer Rouge. He was “sentenced home” under legislation that allows deportation of non-US citizens who have committed crimes. Now, 32 years old and residing in Phnom Penh, after only one year of his deportation, he has been struggling to acclimate himself to a country, culture and language that not only are foreign to him but also indifferent to his history.
Despite the discourse and legislation on immigration developing every year, it is difficult to get a sense of how individuals on the micro level are dealing with this issue. Khiev’s is a prime example. Filmmaker Masahiro Sugano, on behalf of Studio Revolt, began a friendship with Khiev while he was in Cambodia shooting short films. After Khiev revealed his penchant for spoken word and poetry one evening in Hun Sen Park, Sugano offered Khiev the opportunity to become a resident artist with Sugano’s artistic and production lab, Studio Revolt. They have since collaborated on numerous projects—one standout in particular is, “Why I Write,” a first place winner at Berlin’s Zebra Film Festival for “Best Poem Performance on Film” in 2012.
Last year, Sugano started work on a documentary project titled, “Cambodian Son.” The documentary follows the life of Khiev while focusing on his many identities: spoken word artist, former American prisoner, reinstituted refugee, and Khmer American who uses words to express feelings and emotions that ring close to home for many in the community. Ever since his resettlement to Cambodia, he has elicited feelings of courage and hope in the youth he interacts with and the artists he collaborates with, vocally delivering immensely raw and touching poetry.
His triumphant climb and transition from being a former prisoner to a poetic spirit and resistant voice has opened the world to him. He has travelled internationally, spitting rhymes and interacting with his audience through shared narratives and heart wrenching performances that deliver the sounds of his strength and courage.
“Cambodian Son” examines key issues that have recently come to the forefront in US and foreign policy: a look inside the current climate in Cambodia and Cambodia’s contemporary arts scene; the effects of the prison system and international laws on an artist; displacement of families and communities from their homeland; lack of resources and accessibility of new opportunities; the power of the arts to transform individuals and reform an incarcerated population; and the crime and poverty evident in ethnic and marginalized communities.
The story is not new to community members and organizers working with Southeast Asian communities. The Philadelphia-based 1 Love Movement was started by Mia-lia B Kiernan. “1Love was founded during a detention and deportation crisis in the Cambodian American community in Philly in the fall of 2010. We now exist as a national network of grassroots Asian American organizers with chapters in five cities,” said Kiernan. “Our work focuses on building community empowerment through political education, leadership development and organizing to keep families together in our communities by bringing local power to force national change to unjust deportation and criminal justice law.”
The activism of groups such as 1Love is partly an effort to shed light on the stories of deportees, which are rarely shared, precluding greater awareness of the issues they contend with. “Cambodian Son” offers an inside look into the complexities associated with deportation—issues that are not apparent on the surface level. These complexities include Khiev’s first-time arrival in Phnom Penh, his emotional/physical/mental struggles, his interaction with his birth country and encountering the people for the first time, as well as his eventual rise to representing Cambodia in the 2012 Olympiad in London, a pinnacle allowing him to proudly reclaim his identity.
Khiev’s compelling journey is documented in riveting dialogue with the youth and children he teaches, his distant relatives, and snippets of interviews with his community and family in California. He is at the intersection of so many issues, including the US justice/immigration systems and their handling of youth, prisoners, deportees, and refugees.
Sugano, on behalf of Studio Revolt, is requesting funding to complete this project. Several supporters have joined with Sugano, including Tim Robbins, the founder of The Actor’s Gang Theater Company, whose theater group is responsible for outreach to prisons. To learn more and make a donation, please visit http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/cambodian-son, and watch the Cambodian Son trailer at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=45rDseYkEfs&feature=youtu.be.