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Cambodian Son: a feature documentary
Cambodian Son captures the inspirational story of Kosal Khiev’s journey from prisoner in America to world-class poet in Cambodia. The documentary follows Kosal’s life after receiving the most important performance invitation of his career—to represent the Kingdom of Cambodia at the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad. Kosal would travel to London having only taken two flights prior; first, as a 1-year-old refugee child whose family fled Cambodia and, then as a 32-year-old criminal “alien” forcibly returned to Cambodia in 2011. This documentary follows a volatile yet charming and talented young man who struggles to find his footing amongst a new freedom that was granted only through his deportation.
Kosal’s London representation is a triumphant moment for many people in his life, both in America and Cambodia. The film traces the impact and significance of this moment for Kosal, his friends, family, mentors and a growing international fan base. Armed only with memorized verses, he must face the challenges of being a deportee while navigating his new fame as Phnom Penh’s premiere poet. As the pressure to perform and represent builds, Kosal begins to deteriorate. A dramatic series of events nearly prohibits him from ever stepping onto the London stage. From teaching literacy at a Cambodian dumpsite to performing at the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad, Kosal soon realizes with his new freedom comes great responsibility. After the performances end and the London stage becomes a faint memory, Kosal is once again left alone to answer the central question in his life: “How do you survive when you belong nowhere?”
And the final development of this journey seems to have made itself known just two days ago -- Kosal found his long-lost father in France through Facebook. His half sister, whom he had never known, contacted him out of the blue.
Kosal plans to reunite with his father this June when he goes to Germany to attend a poetry festival. Kosal was separated from his father in the refugee camp.
In a way, Kosal has been searching for his father all his life. We believe their reunion makes the right ending for this documentary which has recorded one man’s amazing chapter in life. It is a chapter filled with challenge, fear, surprise, frustration, betrayal, hope, inspiration, love and redemption.
Who We Are and Why
★ The Filmmaker --- My name is Masahiro Sugano. My wife/artist Anida and I make up Studio Revolt. Studio Revolt helps bring voice to those who are on the peripheral, and we do so with much style, beauty and fun. Anida is a refugee from Cambodia herself and a U.S. citizen. We have two daughters.
I am the Japanese and filmmaker half of the studio. I met Kosal via Anida's friend in June of 2011, a few months after he landed in Cambodia. Kosal came along to help out a 24-hour short film production I was doing. He showed up in suits and ran the sound that night. Later Kosal told me the story of his whole life in a coffee shop, then performed two of his spoken word pieces for me at the park. That performance was mesmerizing. All I remember is this wall of tattoos moving about to his rhymes.
★ Fighting the White House --- Soon afterwards, we learned that the White House was making an open call for a video competition called the "What's Your Story Video Challenge" targeting Asian Americans and their stories. We wanted to know where these deportee (whom we began to call "exiles" or "exilers") stories would fit into the landscape of an Asian Americana, too often associated with "model minority" behavior. So Kosal, Studio Revolt and other exilers and expats collaborated to produce the viral video hit "My Asian Americana".
The video made it as one of the 11 finalists. Then we went through the voting stage. We won the popular vote by a landslide, but at the last minute the White House declared that the vote was never meant to be counted. We believe it is because the topic of deportation was too controversial in an election year. And we had expected this treatment but we just wanted the White House to explain itself to the public regarding our video's dismissal. We made another video, a letter "written" to re-address the issue to the president, once again, collaborating with Kosal and other exilers in Phnom Penh. It's called "Return To Sender".
★ London 2012 Cultural Olympiad --- It was around this time that we learned Kosal had been invited to London 2012 Cultural Olympiad. We had to keep it secret until it was made official in April, and we were not going to make it public until he was able to secure the visa.
Late in April, Kosal received the visa and London made the public announcement. It was official. I met Kosal that night in a club. Other exilers and Kosal were hanging out, celebrating. Mr. Wicced, a fellow exiler and a really great dude, was so grateful to Bong (big sister) Anida for what she pulled off for Kosal and for the exiler community. The reality was that we didn't pull it off. We just helped him be more visible. Nonetheless that was the atmosphere that night. Everyone was thankful, happy and hopeful. I sat there looking at Kosal, who was enjoying the moment alone standing on the edge of the dance floor. After a few shots of Jack D. offered by Mr. Wicced, I walked up to Kosal, grabbed his shoulder and yelled into his ear, "You'll someday win the Nobel Peace Prize!! Keep on doing what you're doing!!" I swear at that moment I could see him with grey hair and receiving that award in Stockholm.
That was the best moment so far.
★ Documentary Making Is in Itself a Drama!! --- After that night, all things went south. Documentary filmmaking turned out to be a self-imposed torture of some sort. Our relationship with Kosal got rocky to a point where we had a major falling-out. The idea of London was destroying us. I persevered to film what I could. I hated Kosal's sometimes unpredictable temperaments. Kosal hated our lack of understanding to his pressure and his need for privacy, his need to figure out what all this madness meant. Kosal was falling apart fast and growing distrustful by day. And I developed an ulcer thanks to my wife's equally dramatic temperaments. Yet Kosal kept a sense of purpose despite all that was unfolding. And somehow we ALL made it through to London and then back. I captured rare and genuine moments of reflection and excitement in UK. Spoken word and hip-hop are tools to building something very special and exciting with the young generations. It's bigger than I had ever thought.
★ Amazing People, Amazing Stories --- I traveled to California last October to film his family members and his former mentors from his prison days. Mr. Tim Robbins was so generous to take part in the interview in his extremely busy schedule. He is the creative director of The Actor's Gang Theater Company, which does outreach to prisons, where Kosal had taken his first acting lessons from Ms. Sabra Williams. I was able to film Kosal's mother's visit to Cambodia in December. Her story of survival and love for her children was heart wrenching. She stood on the "execution truck" at least 3 times. How she could still be alive and have managed to raise 7 children alone in the U.S. was beyond me. Kosal comes from a lineage of strength and survival.
★ The Drama Never Ends... --- I thought I had enough to finally finish this story, so I had been editing all this time. Then out of the blue, two nights ago on March 26th, Kosal found his long-lost father through Facebook (*video). His father lives in France. Kosal has three younger half-sisters he never knew. Now I must go to France to film this final chapter. Since Kosal is already scheduled to attend a poetry festival in Berlin this June, I decided I would follow him there and to France. Funding for this trip will not be possible unless we make the whole $35,000. With your help.
★ Why Me!? This Is Killing Me and My Family!! --- As I write all this, I am convinced that I was anointed and destined to make this documentary. When Kosal performed for me for the first time that night, I knew his story had to be told to the wider world. I looked around the terrain of Phnom Penh but found nobody who could make it happen. I knew I had to do it and I knew how to do it. I was just apprehensive. I knew it was going to be big and deep. I didn't know whether it was going to take me to a bottomless pit or a limitless sky.
All the personal bumps I had with Kosal and my wife due to this documentary production has caused much injury to all parties involved. But we stayed together and followed through because we knew we were doing this for something bigger than our own interests. And nobody knows for sure what all of this exactly will mean at the end. It is not an agenda pusher, despite what some may think. It's something else. I just don't know exactly what yet.
★ Why We Need Your Help Now --- My family moved to Cambodia for my wife's Fulbright research in January of 2011, and that was only supposed to last for a year. It has been 2 years and 4 months in Cambodia now. All productions so far have been paid for from our personal funds, and we didn't have much to start with. We foreclosed on our condo in Chicago. We had to sell our car last summer to collect the last $8,000 we could get to continue our endeavor here. We ran out of things to sell and we no longer have any health insurance. We are at the point where we cannot go further without your support.
--- Thus I must turn to you here and right now ---
Please help make this film come true. Help us go to Europe one more time to capture Kosal's story with his father. Help me finish editing this film without having to think I am taking down my family to an economic catastrophe due to my commitment to this film.
And unless we make the entire $35,000, we are unable to make this trip to Europe to film their re-union. We are just too tapped out to use anymore personal funds.
I believe in this project. My wife believes in this project. Please believe in us. It is much bigger than any of us. And we will all find out what this "bigger cause" is when it's all done.
YOU, Anida, Kosal and I will make it together. Let's see where it will take us.
★ Anida's Coming to Town Near You!! --- Anida will be traveling across the U.S. and Canada in April for her lecture and performance tour titled "Generation Return: Art and Justice Tour". Take a look at her schedule and go talk to her in person when she is in a town near you. She will be showing some new and exclusive spoken word videos from Kosal.
Thank you for being a part of our mission.
Masahiro Sugano, Filmmaker of Studio Revolt
What Is Studio Revolt?
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 both performance artist Anida Yoeu Ali and filmmaker Masahiro Sugano. Through his films, Sugano reconsiders cultural and political norms that have constricted our imagination and dulled our senses. Ali performs unapologetic poems and declarations of the self beyond fixed identities and borders. Together their works open up possibilities for people to exist outside of conventional narratives. Studio Revolt takes it a step further by urging viewers to become participants and stake their claim in this world.
Since their arrival in 2011, Studio Revolt has become a prominent presence in the contemporary arts scene of Phnom Penh showcasing their works in public screenings, exhibitions, and public art projects. The studio selected exiled poet Kosal Khiev as their first artist-in-residence in 2011 with the hopes of garnering international attention on his story through their collaborative media projects. In 2012, “Why I Write” featuring the spoken word performance of Kosal Khiev was awarded “Best Poem Performance on Film” at the Berlin Zebra Poetry Film Festival.
Studio Revolt’s first collaboration, “1700% Project: Mistaken For Muslim (2010),” a film about hate crimes against Muslims after 9/11, was the grand prize recipient for LinkTV’s One Chicago One Nation online film competition. The following year their short film “My Asian Americana (2011)” addressing the issue of Cambodian American deportations won the popular public vote in a White House competition but failed to be rewarded as promised by contest organizers. Studio Revolt is the 2012 inaugural artist-in-residence at Teo + Namfah Gallery in Phnom Penh. The studio is currently working on a feature length documentary film, launching a web series on the issue of deportations, traveling to and staging a performance at the former site of Kao-I-Dang refugee camp, and collaborating on a new short film about classical Cambodian dance with Khmer Arts.
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