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Prisoner-to-poet story scoops prize

A still from "Cambodian Son" showing spoken word poet Kosal Khiev
A still from Cambodian Son showing spoken word poet Kosal Khiev. COURTESY OF STUDIO REVOLT

Prisoner-to-poet story scoops prize

A film following the turbulent life of con turned spoken word artist Kosal Khiev yesterday took the top prize at a US festival, where it was screened for the first time.

Cambodian Son, which documents Kosal’s personal upheaval after being deported to a country he had never known, was presented with the Center for Asian American Media’s CAAMFest 2014 best documentary award at San Francisco’s Castro Theatre.

“Of course it feels great, it’s a validation of the efforts that everyone has been putting together,” director Masahiro Sugano said in a phone interview from San Francisco. He and his wife made the film on a shoestring budget after becoming friends with Kosal.

Sugano, who is a permanent US resident originally from Japan, said he hopes the film will prompt Americans to question the negative labels society places on foreign nationals convicted of crimes.

“They carry this label of ‘criminal alien’ and get deported. I’m simply against that: the label equals exclusion,” he said.

Kosal, a 34-year-old spoken-word artist who was born in a Thai refugee camp to Cambodian parents before the family moved to the US, was jailed for 14 years after being convicted of attempted murder as a teenager. Despite never having set foot in Cambodia, Kosal, who never acquired US citizenship, was deported to the Kingdom upon his release.

Since Cambodia and the US signed a repatriation agreement in 2002, hundreds of Cambodian nationals living in the US without citizenship have been deported to the Kingdom for crimes ranging from drug possession to murder. However, many deportees, such as Kosal, have no memory of life outside the US and consider themselves American.

While much of the movie deals with Kosal’s hardships in Cambodia, the poet said that it also portrays the Kingdom as a place where deportees can find a second chance.

“I came here with so many fears, so many hopes and so many dreams, and I never in my wildest imagination thought that life would bring me to the point where I’m at now,” Kosal said.

His spoken word career has taken him on tours to Singapore, France, Germany and the UK, where he represented Cambodia in the official poetry competition of the 2012 Olympic Games.

The movie ends on a positive note as Kosal meets his father, who was separated from Kosal in the refugee camps and ended up in France, as well as his half-siblings.

The reunion was captured by Sugano; Kosal said that he and his father decided that such an improbable reunion would provide hope if recorded on film.

“I told them: ‘We don’t have to film any of this, it can just be us, but it’s going to help so many people if we do.’”

Anida Yoeu Ali, Sugano’s wife and co-producer on Cambodian Son, said she hoped the film would contribute to ongoing debates about US immigration law.

“Those laws are just going to make things worse by separating families, which is against American ideals. It is against the very root of [what] Americans stand for,” said Ali, whose own family fled Cambodia around the same time as Kosal’s.

“The issue is very close to my heart because I am a refugee,” she said.

“I was one of the lucky ones, perhaps because the environment and social circumstances that I grew up in didn’t push me into the wrong path. But I and my fellow cousins could have easily gone down that route.”

Ali said that the movie, which is still in post-production despite Sunday’s screening, is “around 98 per cent” complete, with the final finishing touches to be completed this year.

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