Last two months have been crazy. Since I posted "Samnang's Bear" video. Much has happened and things took us to a different path. My plan was to finish "Bopha's Body" shoot after coming back from Battambang, where "Samnang" was shot, then maybe try another short film, finish feature script, raise money and move onto the feature production in the fall. Well, it just got lots more complex than that. I don't know who to blame on this, or should I just accept the finger pointed at me, saying "You do this." I found myself in a spot and there was a calling. So I went with it. As I took the first steps, I quickly had to realize how big, deep, the whole thing was beginning to look, then I thought... gee this could be pretty crazy. Am I ready? Well, what does it mean to be ready anyway? So I followed my heart. I wanted to see where it would take us. It was a project not for my career or my vision. It was bigger than any of us.
Thus our first collaboration video, Why I Write, was born.
What am I talking about? Well, here is how it happened in a chronological order.
So I came back from Battambang. But before leaving for Battambang, I made one promise with a dude at the Java Cafe screening in late June. The dude really liked my films and told us enthusiastically how excited he was about Studio Revolt and what we were trying to do. His friend starred in one of the films shown that night, Veasna's Painting. The dude said he wanted to tell me his story and share with me a few pieces of his spoken word poetry. I was delighted by his compliments but I wasn't sure what to say. In any case, he wasn't all that important for me that night. I had other guests I wanted to impress and rub elbows with. I knew this guy was just shipped back to Cambodia from the states. So he must have done time. That means he's a felon, ex-convict. I could see tattoos all over his body, forearms, neck, I mean everywhere, he must have been a hardcore. And he wanted to tell me the story of his life. It seemed like he couldn't wait. I asked him to hold back till I'd find a good amount of time to sit down and listen to him. I promised him I'd give him a call once I come back from Battambang, not because I was interested in what he wanted to tell me. I just did not want to appear rude to the poor guy.
So I came back from Battambang, and I knew I had to contact him. I was a bit hesitant. I didn't know how much personal stuff he was going to unfold on me, and I wasn't ready to hear any of it. I met the guy only twice. It's nice to watch those documentaries about thugs and ex-cons on Discovery Channels or PBS, but to talk to a real dude in person... I was quite apprehensive. It was a turf I had never entered. My game plan was just to be nice, attentive and respectful, even if he was to ask for favors I might not be interested in. When it's a good time, I would pay for his coffee and say good night. He'd say thanks for the coffee and maybe we'd never see each other again. Or maybe we would. It didn't matter either way. So I walked to Java Cafe after my wife and I put our daughters to bed.
Once at Java, all I had to do was to just listen to him. I don't remember what time we started. Maybe 9 p.m. Maybe 8 p.m. He had the magic. He was an excellent storyteller. I was thinking he must have learned the art of story telling in prison. I was thinking they must have lots of time to tell stories to each other. The dude told me pretty much his entire life starting from his birth in a refugee camp. Then his falling out in middle school. Being sent to juvenile camp in Alabama. Running the street. Hanging out with the wrong crowd. Then the arrest, verdict, sentencing, 16 years at the age of 16. The whole saga of prison life and his moment of awakening. Finding art, words, poetry. Finding mentors. Learning to survive. Prison riots. Sleepless nights. It went on like a lovely movie about hardship and enlightenment. The insane scenes he portrayed were once very real to the man who was talking to me. I had to watch out for that tickled sense of privilege which made me feel I was granted a special access to a largely foreign and unknown landscape called U.S. prison system, and lives of those who were within.
Now I remember why I felt so odd about this meeting. As far as I was concerned, that's my wife's area. She's the activist. She's the community what-not. But he wanted to talk to me. I didn't know why. I felt honored but strange at the same time. In any case, as he was wrapping up the story of his life, I was overwhelmed by the sense of gratitude towards him for the trust he had in me and the courage to share his story with me with such sincerity. The meeting was simple as it could get. He just wanted to tell me the story of his life. That's it. Nobody had ever done that to me. And nobody probably ever will at the scale, intensity and beauty of the narrative as he did at this meeting.
This guy had something very special to offer. There was no doubt about that. But I didn't know exactly why he wanted me to hear his story. Then we walked out of the cafe, 'cause it was closing at 10 p.m. We walked across the Sihanouk Blvd to the park and sat on the stone bench. Well I did sit. He did not. He lit up his cigarette and we chatted more, then he wanted to perform a few spoken word pieces for me.
That made me apprehensive. I liked the guy for the story. I had not digested all of what he told me yet. I was still overwhelmed by the power of tales he bombarded with me shortly before. But now he wanted to share his spoken word poetry. I was interested, but I really did not want him to ruin it for me if it was not going to be as good as the stories he told me at the cafe.
Then he launched. I don't remember if he was wearing a tank-top or he was shirtless. I think he took off his shirt by then. I remember seeing a lot of tattoos in front of my eyes as he began to let his words flow out of his mouth.
The truth is. I don't really understand poems. It's mostly the language issue. English is my second language. I don't really hear lyrics in songs. Forget rappers. Poetry usually passes over my head as well. So what he was giving, I did not really get. Those rhymes confuse my immigrant ears. But I got what he was telling. It wasn't the word. This guy knew what it was all about. He was making it real. He captivated me despite my limitation on poetic appreciation. It was very clear to me from the very first line. It wasn't the poetry. It was him. He was showing and revealing himself, his emotions, through the vehicle of words called poetry. I had this incomprehensible chills in my spine throughout his performance. This is called transcendence. There are few people in the world who can move you beyond category or background. He was one of them. He was transcending his genre of spoken word poetry. His poetry did not call for comprehension. It only engaged and revealed, for which you do not need knowledge. That's where he was playing. And it was kicking my ass.
He performed another piece for me. I learned soon afterwards spoken word artists use the word "kick" to mean perform. So instead of perform or share a piece of poetry, you "kick" a piece. I'm not a very cool person so I would make you blush if I said something like, "Can you kick a piece?" So I am not using that term, but I think it's like the official term. Anyhow, the dude "kicked" another piece for me. And we said good-bye.
It's a short walk to home from Java, but it took a long time to decompress the events of the night. I talked to my wife and I insisted that she meet him and see him performance. My wife is an experienced spoken word artist. She was a bit suspicious. She had the tone of "been there done that" type reaction. I emphasized that he was good. He was really good. I told her I wanted to do his video. She told me to wait on it until she was convinced of his talent. I had to focus on my feature. We had no time to play around. I asked to do just one video before we would fully commit to the feature in September. She told me to wait on the idea until she was convinced of his talent.
The dude came over one night, probably like 2 weeks later. Our daughters were sleeping in the bedroom so he had to be quiet. On the straw mattress area, where our kids play during the day, the dude kicked a piece at quarter of his voice capacity. The very next day, she told me we ought to work with him for a video project. She said there might be more things to come if we were to start a project with him. I knew there was something like that developing. I never asked for it, but I knew it was developing.
There is much more to tell on these episodes. But it's been a little over three months since our meeting at Java. Now we have a website dedicated for the dude, his poetry, and the deportation issues. My wife designed and launched the website. And we finished another video with him and his crew, which concerns the Exiled American issues addressed at White House, and we finished shooting the second spoken word video called "Moments inBetween the Nights." And it is certain that we will be filming the dude's large body of works in the future to come.
It seemed like the very important milestone in my filmmaking career, the second feature film, has been brushed aside. It stressed me from time to time in the last 2 weeks, thinking of how much I got into this whole thing and it seemed like a never ending project.
But what made sense at the same time was how I could spot all the chain of events that lead us where we are now. From the launch of Studio Revolt to here, it is apparent there has been a dotted line that we were meant to connect. So as frustrated as I am to be away from the feature production for now, I feel fortunate to be able to say what I have said about the chain of events. I should not be using this word, because I'm not sure about where it takes us and don't want to be naive about it, but it was like destiny revealing itself. Like I said, it's already bigger than us. I'm just playing a part in this, and I feel really good about it. Never made films purely for beliefs. Now I can say I have begun to do exactly that.
And I present this video to you hoping you all could experience his poetry in the same way I did on that stone bench that night. I believe his life and belief represent something more important than the film itself or a genre of art. I believe what he is trying to do through his poetry can shed lights for those who feel neglected, abandoned and angry. He has the talent and the heart to reach those. His motto is "one love". I believe it. I believe he was given a mission to fulfill on this earth. I am happy to assist him on his journey.
All in all, I owe this whole journey and exciting detour of the last three crazy months to that dude who took the risk to come up to me and insist that I hear out his life story. I mean a life story. Who does that? The dude's name is Kosal Khiev. He is my friend.
** Please show your support to his art by visiting his website at SpokenKosal.com and signing up to the contact list.
(Masahiro, October 31, 2011)
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