By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
“Cambodian Son,” produced by Anida Yoeu Ali and directed by Masahiro Sugano, tells the story of Kosal Khiev, a Cambodian poet and spoken-word performer who, after being deported from America in the wake of criminal charges, built a substantial reputation in Cambodia’s capitol, Phnom Penh. The documentary cuts between Kosal’s daily life, to his family in California, whom he can’t visit because he isn’t allowed on American soil, to the poet’s troubled trip to London as part of an arts festival. Throughout, Kosal struggles with his anger, frustration, and his artistry, becoming more and more vivid as a troubled but fascinating man. The film also examines the larger question of American deportees struggling to build lives away from the only nation they ever called home.
The Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA) brings the film to Seattle on May 2nd, co-hosted by the Post-Prison Education Program. Producer Anida Yoeu Ali and Khiev’s Talent Manager Maria Tucker, answered some questions about the documentary.
NWAW: How did you meet Masahiro Sugano, and where?
Ali: Masahiro and I met in Chicago. We collaborated for the first time in 2005 when I asked Masahiro to create some videos and animation for my one-woman theater show titled “Living Memory/Living Absence.”
NWAW: Was the relationship personal first, professional first, or did both things evolve at once?
Ali: No comment is what I should say or none of your business. LOL
It was professional first. When things became more personal and intimate, which was not until 2008, we said we would never collaborate. We broke that rule in 2010 and continue to work together now.
NWAW: What are his strengths as a director and artist?
Ali: Masahiro sees exactly what he wants from his imagination and sketchbooks, that he will passionately go after trying to capture his exact vision on film. He’s not just a storyteller, but a visionary. He will never claim he is an activist, and thinks that role is supposed to be mine alone. Instead he’s a humanist, who believes that there comes a time in one’s life when a person is not only compelled, but obligated to tell stories that are often difficult to tell.
And sometimes there is no better option than to use the medium of film to present these narratives. It is with compassion and a keen sense for visual storytelling that Masahiro creates cinematic works of art.
NWAW: Kosal and his friends are upfront about their often-violent history. Were you ever concerned for your health, and/or the director’s health?
Ali: No never!!! These are not dangerous people. Many committed crimes when they were teenagers—they are no longer those individuals and have reformed, so there is nothing to fear.
NWAW: Exactly where does Kosal have family, and how much contact does he have with his family around the world?
Ali: Kosal’s entire nuclear family whom he grew up with is in the US (in southern California) – that’s six siblings and his mother. He only recently discovered his father and three other half sisters in France.
NWAW: Kosal is so gifted with word, rhyme and cadence—has he ever considered rapping, or singing?
Ali: I would argue that spoken word is an element of hip-hop culture and falls between rap and theater.
NWAW: Have any screening/Q&A sessions been especially memorable so far? If so, where, and how?
Tucker: Kosal’s mother saw the film last year in Claremont at Pomona College. Though there was a small turnout, there was quite a bit of emotion in the room as she spoke to Kosal via Skype. For attendees, witnessing the public display of emotion between Kosal and his mom reinforced further the carefully told story of their relationship on screen. It was a compelling moment that has led several of the attendees to continue their commitments to social justice work especially deportations, detention and mass incarceration.
NWAW: Has there been any progress in Kosal’s legal situation since the film was finished?
Tucker: No, there has not been any progress for Kosal. But the South East Asian Freedom Network (SEAFN) continues to strategize and take action to foster awareness of the inhumane and unjust treatment of hundreds of SE Asian families as a result of mass incarceration, detention and deportation.
NWAW: What has Kosal been up to since the film was finished, both in and out of Phnom Penh?
Tucker: The film further introduced Kosal to the US and global markets. So, Kosal has travelled fairly extensively along with Masa. They’ve screened the film in Beijing, Berlin, and Singapore including in a youth detention center. Kosal has a natural knack for connecting with youth, especially troubled youth. He thrives in youth empowerment and development work.
NWAW: Are you attempting to find a distributor for the film, or will you keep that in-house?
Tucker: Yes, Studio Revolt has been working with a potential distributor. We will release further details about this following the last US screening.
NWAW: What’s in the future for all three of you?
Tucker: In 2015, Anida will have exhibitions in France, Australia, and the US. Masahiro will continue work on a new film project, a fiction film: he continues to assert that he is not a documentary filmmaker. Kosal will continue to work on his poetry and begin writing a memoir that will be published in partnership with Studio Revolt. (end)
Andrew Hamlin can be reached at email@example.com.