Sunday, April 6, 2014

Cambodian Son, American Exile


Exile. Many of our artists create their greatest works deprived of their native countries. Think Dante and The Divine Comedy. Think: Voltaire. For a time, Hemingway.

And now, think: Kosal Khiev. Cambodian Son follows the life and times of the Exiled American/Spoken Word Artist/Former Gang Member/Attempted Murderer/Fatherless Cambodian as he struggles with his new home, misses his old home, and not just survives, but lives.


Make no mistake, Kosal Khiev is an American. And this is a very American story, a tarnished man seeking redemption. Reaching bottom, and then climbing, desperately, to reach salvation, or justice, or success. I came to the opening night of the annual Asian American Showcase, expecting this basic, but very fulfilling narrative.


But what makes Khiev's story so compelling is the brilliance of that execution, the intensity and charisma of Khiev himself, and the complexity of filmmaker Masahiro Sugano's storytelling. 

This isn't just a story of one man's rise from the bottom, of a man without a country. It's a story seeped in history, of wartime sins: the bombing and displacement and purge of the Cambodian people in the 1970's, the effects of which have rippled down generations, into the lives of millions of people today (how could it not?).  

It's a story of a dehumanized prison system that takes damaged teenagers and throws them to the wolves. Of an immigration policy that tears those children away from their families, sometimes forever. And, of course, it's a story about art, used for healing, and expression, but also as a vessel for the human experience. Like an extra limb for the soul. 

There's a lot going on here. All of these issues intersect and respond to the imperfect life of Kosal Khiev. The complexity of the story is even apparent in the exile. Kosal is Cambodian, but the only life he's ever known as a child was in America. Because of history, his family found themselves exiled from Cambodia, their home. America was his home, and yet, he's lived half of his life in its prisons. 


I'm talking a lot about stories, and I have talked about new, diverse narratives in so many posts because I think they are: 1. Important, 2. Morally Just, and, almost just as important, 3. Interesting. 

But I can't forget that this story here is true, and these struggles are everyday. Opening Night at the Asian American Showcase made it a point to bring the story to reality. At the end of the documentary, (the filmmaker) Masahiro Sugano, spoke with the audience, and he brought with him Kosal Khiev, through the miracle of Skype, where he answered questions from the audience. 


Kosal is still in exile, his struggle far from over. For the viewer, this is a story. We have to be reminded. For Kosal, this is his life