Kosal Khiev was 16 when he was jailed for 14 years on an attempted murder conviction. After being deported to Cambodia – a country he had never seen – he sought out a fresh start. A new documentary charts his journey
In a scene from the new documentary telling the life story of Kosal Khiev, the poet’s relatives in California recalled a sometimes violent teenager who would sulk in his bedroom alone as he polished a gun.
“I look back on it, and I think, ‘What went so wrong that I was that type of person?’” said Kosal, a 34-year-old Cambodian-American, in an interview last week.
Set to be released in Phnom Penh cinemas next week after premiering in San Francisco last March, Japanese filmmaker Masahiro Sugano’s Cambodian Son follows the ex-convict’s redemption through spoken word poetry while living as an “exile” in the Kingdom.
Kosal, who was born in a Thai refugee camp to Cambodian parents before immigrating to the US as a baby, grew up in Santa Ana, California.
He joined the Tiny Rascal Gang, considered the largest Asian-American street gang, as a teenager before being sent to prison for 14 years on an attempted murder conviction at age 16.
While in prison, where he spent more than a year in solitary confinement, he found his calling in poetry.
But instead of going home upon release, Kosal was deported to Cambodia after spending another year in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention as a “criminal alien”.
Since Cambodia and the US signed a repatriation agreement in 2002, hundreds of Cambodian immigrants living in the US without citizenship have been deported to the Kingdom for crimes ranging from minor drug possession to murder.
However, many deportees, such as Kosal, have no memory of life outside the US and consider themselves American.
He said the reality of his situation sank in as he awaited deportation at a ICE holding centre in Washington state with fellow deportees.
“And I thought, we’re not deportees, we’re not returnees. Where are we returning to? We got exiled, fool,” said Kosal, who had never been to Cambodia before 2011.
But despite the hardships, Kosal’s poetry career began to take off in his new home. In September 2011, Kosal became artist-in-residence at Sugano’s production company Studio Revolt, and the documentary was given the green light.
To capture Kosal’s life in Cambodian Son, Sugano combined guerilla-style footage of Kosal’s everyday life with interviews with his friends and family across four continents.
Important life events, such as Kosal’s trip to London to represent Cambodia at the 2012 Olympic’s Cultural Olympiad and the reunification with his father in France, are all captured.
While portraying the poet in a sympathetic light, Kosal’s attempted murder conviction isn’t downplayed – he admitted his guilt. In a particularly sobering scene, a former accomplice took Sugano to the rock formation in the Californian desert where they had both pledged allegiance to the gang. As the friend recalled, they had resigned themselves to eventually being murdered.
Kosal said that alienation from his family, with whom he didn’t share memories of the Khmer Rouge, and frustration with his low social status led him towards a gang that fought “street wars” against similarly minded youth.
“If you attacked us, we would attack you. But I never went after innocents . . . these were gang members who were trying to murder me. I’m not trying to justify it, but that’s what it was.”
Hopefully, said Sugano, Cambodian Son will reach California state prisons to give inmates an example of a thriving ex-convict on a law-abiding path.
“The best thing would be to bring Kosal back to those prisons to have him talk, but I can’t do that due to the peculiarities of the situation, so the second best thing is to bring back this film, and there might be some guys who think: I knew him, he’s making it out there.”
Cambodian Son opens Friday at Legend Cinema. The director will hold a public talk at Java Cafe at 7pm on Tuesday.