Verses in Exile: Subject Kosal Khiev’s Perspective

Watch "Verses in Exile," an original web series by the director of "Cambodian Son," online now.

Poet Kosal Khiev is the subject of Director Masahiro Sugano’s feature length documentary, Cambodian Son, as well as the four-part web series, Verses in Exile. Verses in Exile delves into Khiev’s childhood and what led to his deportation to Cambodia.

Verses in Exile is currently streaming online at and was recently featured at CAAMFest 2015. The 4th and final episode begins streaming this Thursday, April 9, 2015. The program is a co-production of Studio Revolt and CAAM with major funding provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Below, Khiev shares his thoughts as the subject of the web series.

What was the best and worst part of making Verses in Exile?
The best part of making Verses in Exile was seeing Cambodia in a different light, time and place while reflecting on my past experiences as well as taking in the whole context in which Cambodia came.

Worst was actually working with friends and people I knew ‘cuz it tested our patience and for me, it was hard having to actually divulge a huge part of myself. Because when you’re working you’re working. So it was hard to balance when it was work and when it was play.

But also to me my story is nothing new. I took each experience as it came—expecting any hardships and knowing that I have the ability to overcome whatever we may have to face.

You’ve made a lot of films with director Masahiro Sugano…What’s it Like to work with him? What insights can you give us on working with a director like Masahiro?
What can i say about Masahiro? Of course my relationship with Masa is on another level.

He has an eye. He sees what he wants. And sometimes when he doesn’t, he even dares to approach a scene in some other way rather than to resort to typical shots.

He is by no means easy on his subject. Masa runs a tight ship but he was always concerned for my well being. Making sure that I’m ok or if I needed space. He interjects rather than overbears which I found extremely comforting.

What was different about working on the web series Verses in Exile versus the feature documentary Cambodian Son?
Working on Verses in Exile (VIE) had a totally different feel from Cambodian Son because the movie was basically unfolding right before our eyes. Neither of us or anyone for that matter knew what was going to unfold. I think that’s the beauty of Cambodian Son: it actually takes the audience to unexpected places whether it be physically or emotionally whereas VIE was my own memories having to recall certain pivotal moments in my life and telling them in different parts of Cambodia, a country I am still having to discover. VIE was something I’ve always wanted to do. So I’m grateful to Studio Revolt. And of course I still view VIE as just a snippet of my whole life. There are many more stories to tell.

What is one thing you want people to walk away with after watching VIE or Cambodian Son?
If anybody would by chance see VIE I hope that they see a man who is still unfolding and that my life is still just as relevant today as it was then. I also hope that they walk away feeling inspired to change the necessary things in their lives—whatever adversity they might go through, they too possess the strength to overcome. Especially with the final episode, my hope is that they see and feel that no person is an island and that we must seek to hold each other up.

What are some of your future projects and plans in Cambodia?
What lies next, I still find, are endless possibilities. Many projects are already at hand. I have a small role in an upcoming feature film shot in Cambodia. I play an essential character that brings all the main characters together. It is set to be released this year.

I have also been painting and writing many different pieces from an animated screenplay to theatre. What is close to my heart is a project which is in incubation now PROJECT UNITE US which seeks to reunite Cambodian American families impacted by deportation.

To be honest, I am taking everything as it comes. I am in a space of openness and that is all I can be right now: hoping for the best but prepared for the worst.

Watch Now

Episode 1: Lonely Child (6:31min)
Kosal Khiev grew up seeking his place in a family ravaged with its own trauma of war and genocide. The youngest of seven children, Kosal yearned for acceptance and found solace in innocent childhood activities –collecting cans and shooting at pigeons. With the devastating loss of his grandmother, another side of Kosal unfolds on the violent streets of his youth.

Episode 2: Spare the Rod, Spoil the Child (7:27min)
Kosal vividly recollects the violence he endured at the hands of saviors and fellow gang members. From a labor camp in Louisiana to the streets of Southern California, Kosal delivers chilling stories of a young man who lost hope for the good life. Initiated into gang life at 14, his sky is filled with “ghetto birds” and night watchmen even before he enters prison.

Episode 3: Children with Guns (8:22min)
Kosal’s escape into gang life becomes a slow trap into a cycle of violence.

His California dream is a nightmare that unfolds with 6 bullets packed then unloaded. Now labeled a “monster”, Kosal delivers memories of substituting family with gang life and his subsequent incarceration at Tehachapi prison.

Episode 4: Blank Canvas (10:01min)
Kosal’s destiny as a poet begins to take shape. With the help of the California Arts in Corrections program, he discovers the power of spoken word through fellow inmate Marty Williams. Armed with new verses, Kosal begins the slow climb back to the living and healing – even after more than a year in solitary confinement.