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Freedom through Exile: The Unfolding Stories of Cambodian Son

By Shayna Plaut, Contributing Editor, Human Rights

Three years after a meeting in the bustling streets of Phnom Phen when the co-founders of Studio Revolt, Masahiro Sugano and Anida Yoeu Ali, first “experienced” Kosal Khiev’s poetry, a documentary about his life is coming to the big screens throughout America – a country Kosal calls home but is barred from returning. Khiev was born in a refugee camp in Thailand after his family had escaped from the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. At the age of one he began his new life, resettled in Southern California growing up eating fried chicken and enjoying pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving. As a teenager Khiev got involved in street life and when he was 15 years old he was charged with attempted murder and tried and convicted as an adult. Khiev served 16 years in prison, including solitary confinement. Through a prison writing program he found his voice and power, and spoken word poetry became his means of redemption.

After serving his sentence, when he was thirty-two years old, Khiev was released from prison and deported to the Kingdom of Cambodia: a country he had never known. He became one of the thousands of people who, after doing their time, were exiled from America. And this is where the worlds of Studio Revolt and Kosal Khiev came together. Khiev became an artist in residence with Studio Revolt offering his time and talent in return for their mentorship and management in the world of art.  Although Sugano identifies as an experimental filmmaker who had never previously considered documentary, he “decided to take on the responsibility to do it.”

Via Studio Revolt

Cambodian Son is a film that documents how Khiev “struggles to find his footing amongst a new freedom that was granted only through his deportation.” When asked to elaborate on this statement, producer Anida Yoeu Ali explains, “Kosal was incarcerated for so long, all he knew was the institution of prison and when he got out he wasn’t going to go to the US. He wasn’t going to go home. Instead he was going to go to a place his parents called home but he had never set foot in. The creative freedom he embraced after getting his physical freedom is what makes his story different. He has this thirst to create, to pursue a direction which is kind of unthinkable… and that’s what we mean that he gained his freedom through deportation.”

Studio Revolt is an independent artist run media lab that produces films, videos, installations and performance projects in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The media lab serves as a collaborative space for Sugano and Ali, who is a performance artist. They urge their viewers to become participants and stake their claim in this world. Negotiating the fourteen hour time difference, I sat down over a choppy Skype connection with Ali to ask her about the process of making Cambodian Son and working with Khiev to bring to light larger issues of exiled Americans. We also talked about Studio Revolt’s work in creative provocative, beautiful and disturbing art to bring about social-cultural and political change.

Shayna Plaut: What’s the balance of art, politics and social change? How have you negotiated this personally?

Anida Yoeu Ali: I don’t pigeon hole myself or my work.

I have big philosophical beliefs but it doesn’t always come out in my art, nor do the politics always come out. If you start to say you only do political art it’s very limiting. Sometimes it’s about beauty and grace and the aesthetics of that. And sometimes it’s about experimentation and trying new things and working through metaphor…so you’re not spoon-feeding people which is what often happens with politically charged work.

Personally, it is a constant journey for myself as an artist and now a producer of films with Studio Revolt. But there is a thing you have to ask yourself. What’s the point of what you’re doing? What does this mean to express what you’re doing – not to tell but to express – and there is a difference. To express is that you are trying to create an experience for someone. To tell or to show someone is that you are literally showing.

SP: How is Cambodian Son both Khiev’s story and not “just one man’s” story?

Via Studio Revolt

AYA: It is Khiev’s story but it is not limited to being just about him. The story that unfolds in Cambodian Son is not just his biography because the man is in the intersection of so many issues and so many historical moments. So many things that have led up to what he is and what he’s forced himself to become and who he could potentially be in the bigger sphere of the world.

You can’t tell Khiev’s story without telling the story of the Cambodian people and what happened when the U.S. decided to bomb Cambodia in the 70s.

You can’t tell Khiev’s story without talking about the refugee experience and the kind of economic poverty that many refugees experienced in the U.S.A. which continues to shirk its responsibility for the geo-politics that occurred between the U.S. and Cambodia.

You can’t tell Khiev’s story without talking about deportation and its link to war, destruction, and violence and immigration issues.

You can’t tell Khiev’s story if you don’t make the links to the prison system and the criminalization of youth of color.

I think all of these things have found themselves to be represented by this one man who never set out to represent these things. But as a result of who he is and the complexity of the geo- politics and socio, economic and environmental conditions that shaped his life you get a very complex story. But it is as story beyond Khiev

SP: How did you become aware of exiled Americans and how did you become interested in the issue?

AYA: The issue of exiled Americans got on my radar in the mid-2000s when the US government cracked down and actually started deporting people. There was a repatriation agreement between the U.S. and Cambodia but now immigration services were actually going after people who had served their time and were out. This was affecting the Cambodian American community in Chicago where I grew up — I was a community organizer so I was already in touch with a lot of young people — but I knew this was national. The community had to respond quickly in a crisis situation. One of my friends – a pen pal that I had written to when he was incarcerated – was up for deportation and I was part of his stop deportation campaign.

So all that to say that I had been aware of these issues and I knew it had happened already to other communities: El Salvadorians, Guatemalans…and it just felt like the U.S. government was suddenly going after all these communities of color. And especially when a lot of these young men and women are bi-products of an American culture and an American system.

SP: How did the issue of exiled Americans and deportations become such an important focus of Studio Revolt’s work?

AYA: Masahiro, my partner and the director and the other half of Studio Revolt, will be the first to tell you he is not an activist. He never signed up to be an activist. That is what I do and what I bring to the table at Studio Revolt

But when we were here in Cambodia and we really started to talk to the deportees – the stories became really real for us. Many, many of them are decent human beings who left so many of their family behind. Kids, moms, dads, siblings. As human beings who have families and children together, Masahiro and I thought there has to be something that can be done to bring their stories to the surface. We needed to remind people that just because these people had been kicked out does not mean we are not going to hear from them or their stories. Just because they are no longer in America does not mean they are not part of America, American history and Asian American history.

So for us it was very easy. The stories that are the most interesting to tell are the stories that are not being told.

SP: You mentioned earlier that you wanted the issue of deportation and exiled Americans to become a bigger part of the agenda for Asian Americans. Can you expand on that?

AYA: A large part of the Asian American discourse and movement leaves out immigration and deportation and poverty in the South East Asian communities. Among the Cambodians, Vietnamese, Hmong and Laotians there are very high rates of unemployment, PTSD, dropout rates. I feel that Asian America is too stuck on talking about stereotypes and prejudice and too often forget about the folks who are gangsters and ex-criminals and have had to deal with violence and serious racial prejudice.

Their stories have in many ways been abandoned by mainstream Asian America. When you talk about deportations I think you have to talk about gang culture and criminal activity, the issues that come up with deportees. These are often difficult and ugly issues, but at the same time they are critical.

As Asian Americans we have dealt with exclusion – resulting in Japanese internment camps. It is very easy to scapegoat, call people criminal aliens and then just ship them away, discard them, even though they have grown up their entire lives in, and are a part of, the US culture.

I don’t know if what we do makes people care more, or makes Asian American people care more, but I have to remind them that Asian America is taking place outside of America. A piece of Asian America is happening here in Cambodia. Through artistic expression, through the hip- hop music and spoken word that the exiles are carrying with them, Asian America is growing stronger as a result of this injustice.

SP: I know you can’t speak for Sugano but I want to ask you, what do you want this film to do?

AYA: I believe you can only change what’s happening right now by changing laws and policies. But you can only change laws and policies by changing the culture in which they are bred and embedded.

So I believe one way you can reach people culturally is through film and art and experiencing people’s stories. Humanize what’s happening in a compassionate manner so you, as the audience, start to think: perhaps there is something wrong here. Perhaps you never knew this was happening. You may not understand it but you can see there is some sort of injustice being done. You experience someone like Khiev, who completely embraced reform which – ironically – is not expected in the prison system – and you think, maybe that is where our money should go: for prison reform! Maybe the goal is reform – not punishment. Someone like Khiev is an example where reform works, where art is a tool for transformation of self, and potentially and eventually societal transformation.

The film is supposed to complicate things enough to make people think. That’s what I am interested in with this film. And how this story relates to how people feel or look at certain issues.

I’m hoping it can be screened to lawmakers and even to people working in policy. And secondly, I want housewives and mothers to see the film because they are going to be the game changers in affecting policy. If some women can see this story as one of a son trying to return home, then I think people would feel more compassion. With compassion there is a chance to change the laws and policies.

Director Masahiro Sugano is currently on a two-month tour of Cambodian Son in the United States. Please check here for a calendar of screenings.

As Sugano says in his director’s statement, there is a “bigger purpose that this film serves.”

For more information on arranging a screening of Cambodian Son in your community – including an in-depth press kit with rich background information on the issue, the artists, what you can do to help stop deportations please check out the Cambodian Son website.

Studio Revolt is in the process of creating an action campaign. Please stay connected via email and/or Facebook for updates. You can sign up here.