Courtesy of Studio Riot

From teenage gangster to exiled poet: New documentary follows Kosal Khiev

A new film tells the story of a spoken word artist who spent 14 years in US prison, only to be deported to Cambodia

Indefinitely stuck in solitary confinement in the middle of his 16-year sentence for attempted murder, Kosal Khiev thought he was on verge of insanity.

“I was angry. I was sad. I was lost,” Khiev says in “Cambodian Son,” a new documentary that traces his life from teenage gangster to prison poet to award-winning, exiled artist in Cambodia.

After 8 months in solitary at a California prison, there was one night “everything shifted,” he told Al Jazeera.

In 2000, he woke up from a nightmare where he’d been repeatedly stabbed. He walked to his cell’s steel sink and cracked mirror, etched with the names of those who had stayed there before him.

Looking into his reflection, “I saw my fractured self, so many pieces of me. And all these voices came out: ‘Is this it?’ 'Are you going to die in here?’ ‘Is your life going to amount to nothing?’” Khiev said the voices asked him.

But there was also another voice, he told Al Jazeera, “an innocent one,” the voice of “that kid that once held my grandmother’s hand.”

From then on, he couldn’t help himself — he had to express those voices. When the lights went off in the hole, “I’d walk to the iron door and just recite,” he told Al Jazeera.

With the encouragement of his fellow prisoners who could only hear him, Khiev shared his thoughts and feelings in late-night speeches that would help him get through another about 10 months in solitary. “Those conversations in the dark. They were glimpses of light,” he says in the documentary.

In a still from "Cambodian Son," Kosal Khiev performs one of his poems in London.

Khiev didn’t know it yet, but those “conversations” were the beginning of an internationally acclaimed poetry career.

“Cambodian Son,” a documentary by Masahiro Sugano with its New York debut on April 27 and its Washington, D.C., premiere on April 28, follows the ups and downs of Khiev’s life, tracking him from exile in Cambodia to London where he participates in the London Cultural Olympiad, a sort of Olympics of poetry where he was selected from more than 6,000 nominated poets.

Through Khiev’s journey Sugano highlights a history, an American prison system and immigration policies that tear families apart and often leave individuals by themselves to battle hardships.

In the film, Khiev is shown to be imperfect — at one point, he fails to show up to teach vulnerable Cambodian children poetry — but his ability to communicate his emotions and to simply keep moving forward with his dreams make him an inspiring figure.

Khiev says in the film, “You have no idea how strong you are, when being strong is the only option you have.”

That strength and ability to flourish in adversity have already helped others, Sugano told Al Jazeera. At a recent screening in Minneapolis, a man set for deportation came up to Sugano and told the director that the film “gave him strength,” that it helped him deal with the knowledge that he could be exiled at any moment.

LA streets and prison poetry

Khiev was born in 1980 in a refugee camp in Thailand to a family that had fled the Khmer Rouge. From 1975 to 1979, an estimated 1.7 million people — nearly a fifth of the population — died in Cambodia under the ultra-Maoist Khmer Rouge.

In 1981, Khiev and his family moved to Santa Ana, California — some of the more than 100,000 Cambodians who took refuge in the United States around that time. His family of nine lived in a two-bedroom apartment in public housing “on the wrong side of the tracks,” Khiev said.

A 2005 study found that over 60 percent of Cambodian-Americans who fled the Khmer Rouge have some form of post-traumatic stress disorder, and another study found that PTSD in the Cambodian-American community is passed down from generation to generation.

Khiev told Al Jazeera that he didn’t understand what his mom and older siblings had gone through. “It was swept under the rug,” he said. By 14, Khiev had joined a gang with other young Cambodian-Americans, who seemed to understand him better. "It almost felt," he told Al Jazeera, like the gang members "knew how I felt. They understood."

Two years later, after his involvement in a gangland shooting, he was tried as an adult and booked for attempted murder. “In two years, I changed from a young innocent to a child soldier,” he said.

It was poetry that helped him transform again.

When Khiev finally got out of solitary in 2001, where he’d stayed sane with those late-night recitations, he found himself in Folsom prison on laundry duty. One day, there were three prisoners folding clothes around him, “just sharing poetry, sharing verses,” he said. They invited him to a weekly poetry class.

That Thursday in class, someone started speaking. “It was so real, so raw, so natural,” Khiev said.

That man, Marty Williams, was the one that finally labeled what Khiev been doing solitary: spoken word poetry. “Just speak, just speak from the heart,” Williams told Khiev.

Khiev took Williams' advice and kept doing spoken word, but it didn’t improve his luck.

When he was let out of prison, he’d done 14 years of his 16-year sentence. But he was immediately taken to an immigration detention center, where he spent another year behind bars, waiting to be permanently ejected from the country he grew up in.

Second punishment

The movie poster for "Cambodian Son"

Even though he could hardly speak the language of Cambodia, had been in the U.S. since before he could walk and had already served his time, Khiev was being deported to Cambodia. With no money, no passport and no family members in the country, he had to start again.

In 1996, Congress passed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA), which stipulates that any non-citizen in the U.S. can be deported if convicted of an aggravated felony. The term "aggravated felony" has become a broad one. Cambodian-Americans have been deported for crimes as minor as public urination and shoplifting.

Cambodia initially refused to accept the Cambodian-American exiles, but in 2002, under U.S. pressure, the Cambodian government gave in. Cambodia’s former ambassador to the U.S. told Macau’s Closer magazine that the U.S. threatened to remove privileges granted to the children of Cambodia’s elite leaders: “The U.S. told us that there would be no more visas issued, and our kids couldn't go to school in America."

The Department of Homeland Security was unable to provide official statistics in time for publication, but since 2002, well over 200 Cambodian-Americans have been deported, and another nearly 2,000 live in limbo, waiting for a deportation that could happen at any moment.

While some Cambodian-American exiles have prospered, they have not all fared as well as Khiev. At least two Cambodian-Americans have committed suicide after being dropped off in Cambodia, and at least two have been murdered. One of them is believed to have been killed in relation to his involvement with local criminals.

Both Khiev and Sugano said they hoped the documentary would help viewers see beyond the labels of “deportee” or “felon.” Khiev said he wanted to film to help people be “a little more compassionate, a little more understanding and have more empathy to those whose stories might not be so pretty.”

Khiev told Al Jazeera, “it’s not just my story.” It’s the story of gangs, of prisons and of an immigration policy that doesn’t get much press. But it’s also the story of the power of an individual to flourish, even in the hardest of circumstances.

As Khiev explains in the film: “The human spirit will always search to thrive, not just survive.”


Future screenings of the movie can be seen here.

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