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Poetic justice: spoken word artist’s story finds tender end

19 Kosal khiev

Last month, Cambodian-American spoken word artist Kosal Khiev received a Facebook friend request that changed his life.

The request, which came from a female stranger in France, was accompanied by a baby photo that Kosal immediately recognised as himself.

She told him her father had given it to her, before adding, “I think my dad is your dad.”

“She goes on to say, ‘He misses you, he loves you, he shows your picture to everyone,’” Kosal said, remembering the day some weeks later.  

When he told his friend, Japanese filmmaker Masahiro Sugano, the pair knew they had found the ending for their documentary: a no-holds-barred account of Kosal’s extraordinary life that  has been funded on a shoestring budget.

Sugano has foreclosed his Chicago home, sold his car and foregone health insurance to pay for the project – which he says tells an important story.

Although Kosal, who was born in a Thai refugee camp in 1980, accompanied his mother and six older siblings to the United States shortly after his birth, his father was separated from the rest of the family. He was ultimately repatriated to France, where he started a new family.

Kosal, meanwhile, was deported to Cambodia from the United States in 2011 following a 14-year prison sentence handed down for attempted murder when he was 16 years old.  

He was reunited with his mother last year in Phnom Penh, and the meeting with this father and three half-sisters will be the final scene in the documentary, titled Cambodian Son.

Sugano, who runs the film production company Studio Revolt with his wife Anida Yoeu Ali, said the film will explore the idea of being an “outcast”.

“It’s about how we get caught up with labelling, how easily we forget that everyone is a human being with faults.”

Sugano also said he is intrigued by the political situation that prevents Kosal from returning home. Immigrants legally staying in the US can generally obtain citizenship after five years, which can only be revoked voluntarily.  Kosal  never obtained citizenship.

“This is a guy who spent his entire life in the US. He eats nothing but burgers and French fries and fried chicken, which makes him more American than most Americans are.”

The film began shooting at the same time that Kosal learned that he was selected to represent Cambodia at the 2012 Olympics Poetry Parnassus, which brought poets from 204 countries to perform their works in London. Sugano also travelled to California to interview Kosal’s family, friends, mentors and prison mates.

Kosal said that it took him time to adjust to being followed by a camera.

“You get uncomfortable for the first few days, and then it’s like [the camera] is not even there anymore.”

It’s not the first time Studio Revolt has taken on the issue of deportees.

Last year, the production company submitted a short film titled My Asian Americana to a White House-run competition that requested “stories with impact” from the Asian-American community. Although the video won the most votes on the White House website, it was disqualified.

This time Sugano aims to create a feature-length movie.  With almost 120 hours of footage shot, Sugano was prepared to send the project into post-production when Kosal received news of his family in France.

Although determined to find a way to shoot the reunion, Sugano said the production’s budget has run low and is fundraising on indiegogo.com.

“I just want America to . . . give people who are working hard a fair chance, and to always consider their circumstances and their humanity before inflicting such a permanent punishment.”

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