Kosal Khiev, the Cambodian Son

The soppy lyrics of an old song says, “The best love songs are written with a broken heart,” and by the same token, some of the best poetry must be written with a broken spirit.

Screen grab photo of Kosal Khiev as he is featured in
the award-winning documentary, "Cambodian Son"
This comes to mind as I sit in the dark with my eyes glued to the screen.  The images that document the life of deported poet, Kosal Khiev, are real and relevant.  With each passing moment of the film, I’m patting myself in the back for making it a point to catch the second screening of “Cambodian Son,” in the 12th JB Arts Fest.  But at the back of my mind, I’m regretting that so many people who would have appreciated this, is missing it.

This film was first presented earlier this year in the inaugural JB Film Festival and while I caught most of the movies during the festival, I just couldn’t make it to the screening of “Cambodian Son.”  One of the key attractions of the film fest, in my humble opinion, was the opportunity to see some of the directors and actors after the screening, for an introduction and dialogue with the audience about the making of the film.

My autographed page of the Festival Guide
When I read the Film section of the JBAF Festival Guide and discovered that “Cambodian Son” was scheduled for two shows in a weekend, I cancelled all other appointments to go for the film on Sunday evening.  It was slotted for 7pm, right smack in the dinner hour so I sent a message to the JBAF secretariat to ask about the duration of the show.  Their reply simply said: 2hr 15min.

I arrive at the Black Box in the Mall of Medini just before 7pm to secure my favourite spot, thinking that since the show was Free-of-Charge on a weekend, there may be a crowd who are just as eager to watch this film.

The film is directed by award-winning director, Masahiro Sugano, a pioneer in spoken word films.  Sugano launched Studio Revolt, a collaborative media lab with a prominent presence in Cambodia.

“Cambodian Son” garnered nominations in international film fests and was awarded Top Documentary Award, San Francisco CAAMFEST 2014 and Special Jury Prize for Best Documentary, Cultural Resistance Film Festival of Lebanon 2014.

Kosal Khiev was a 1-year old refugee child who grew up as an Asian-American alien in Santa Ana, US.  The documentary charts Kosal’s journey, transforming from teenage gangster to prison poet, surviving the American prison system and immigration policies that tear families apart and leave deportees to battle hardships.

In 2011, at age 32, Kosal was deported and forcibly returned to Cambodia.  The documentary shows how this deported poet struggles to find his footing in Cambodia, a country he hardly knows, and what happened when he received the most important performance invitation of his career – to represent Cambodia at the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad!

I realise that director Sugano skillfully played the scene of Kosal’s father twice – once at the start of the film and later in the sequence of unfolding events – with his words translated in English subtitles.  He did not qualify as a refugee to go to the US and ended up in France, instead.  As I reflected on his father’s words, I cannot help but agree with him about the painful costs of war.

Kosal’s spoken word poetry, presented with such passion, comes across as raw, painful, powerful and oh so beautiful.  His American English is easy to understand and I can draw pictures from his words and expressions, spoken with so much angst and raw emotion.  So absorbed am I in the film that a lump has formed in my throat and my eyes are brimming with tears.

Kosal, performing "live" after the film screening
The film rolls to an end while I sit mesmerized by the experience.  Dim lights cast shadows in the room but nobody leave their seats – maybe like me, they are also savouring the effects and digesting the contents of this film.  Then I hear the announcement and I’m stunned when Kosal Khiev, the subject of the film, appears “live” in the room!

Tears spill from my eyes when Kosal talks about his first experience of reciting his poetry while incarcerated in solitary confinement.  In 2000, eight months into his solitary in a California prison, he awoke from a nightmare and looked at his image in the cracked mirror.  He saw fractured pieces of himself reflected in the mirror, and those pieces were many voices who asked him, “Is this it?” “Are you going to die in here?” “Is your life going to amount to nothing?”

Kosal, sharing his poems in his
unique, engaging way
Then he started to write down what these voices expressed – fears, hopes, dreams and nightmares.  And late at night, he would go to the hole in the iron door of his cell and recite them. 

Prison inmates nearby who could hear him would encourage him to recite his thoughts and one guy who was good at doing the beat-box, supplied the rhythm for his spoken word.  Sharing his thoughts and feelings with others in late night speeches, helped him get through the next 10 months in solitary.

I listen with bated breath as Kosal recites a few pieces of his spoken word poetry and I can feel his pain from poems like, “God’s nightmare of me” and “Listen.”  The air-conditioning in the Black Box is rather chilly, maybe from a new system or too few people in the room, and Kosal comes on wearing a jacket, scarf and hoodie to keep warm.  But after the heated performance of his deep and dark poems, he soon shed the warm clothing to reveal his heavily tattooed arms and body!

Kosal, signing autographs in the foyer of the Black Box
When we meet in the foyer, Kosal is all smiles and I ask him if he has laid his ghosts to rest and he replies in jest, that if he can’t sleep he will write poetry or tattoo himself!  (Kosal is also a tattoo artist!)

While we may not be able to fully identify with his deportee circumstances, he truly is an inspiration for budding poets and to those who made mistakes in their youth, Kosal is a living example of one who can turn his life around for the better.

As its Kosal’s time to meet others for a chat, sign autographs and take photo mementoes, I bid him farewell and wish him well.  Not just in his passionate pursuit of poetry, running poetry workshops with young people as an artist-in-residence at Studio Revolt but also that his desire to return to the US and reunite with his family, may be fulfilled someday soon.

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