Curated by first generation Muslim Khmer artist, Anida Yeou Ali, and taking place in a space donated by Project Reach (a youth organizing and community empowerment space), the program included live poetry from Anida; live hip hop from Khmer-American rapper, PraCh Ly; and a live set by Neo-Cambodia indie-pop singer, Bochan.
The program was interspersed with short films and videos produced by Studio Revolt, an independent artist run media lab and collaborative space based in Phnom Penh, founded by Anida and her partner and filmmaker, Masahiro Sugano. The films included 'Why I Write' and 'Moments in Between the Nights' --spoken word pieces performed by Khmer Exiled American poet, Kosal Khiev, who spent 14 years in the US prison system (which included a year-and-a-half term of solitary confinement) for a gang crime he committed at 16 years old. Kosal had also sent a poignant and personalized video message recorded in Phnom Penh the night before the event, where he described some of his experiences as the informal 'night watchman' of his prison dorm, an experience which inspired him to write, 'Moments in Between the Nights'. The trailer for 'Cambodian Son', Masahiro's documentary about Kosal's life since deportation, and his experiences as London's 2012 Cultural Olympiad, was also screened.
Another hit of the night, which brought tears to the eyes of many, was Studio Revolt's piece titled 'My Asian Americana'--a short film which focuses on memories of 'Americana' presented by both exiled and expatriate Asian-Americans living in Phnom Penh. In an show of cultural and national identity, each of the exiles and expatriates were clad in American flags and recited the Pledge of Allegiance to the country which (ironically) deported half of them back to Cambodia.
The next film featured the emotional reunion of returnee, Zar, with his wife Tyna in Phnom Penh. Zar was deported back to Cambodia 13 years after having finished his prison sentence. He was ripped away from his wife, children, and job as a laser technician. The film documents Zar and Tyna describing the horrendous day when he never returned home from his ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) check-in. The film is a grim reminder of how devastating these deportations are for those left behind, and how unjust the system is, considering he served his debt to society 13 years earlier for a crime he committed as a teenager.
There were also two films dedicated to the work of Tiny Toones, an Phnom Penh-based NGO which provides a safe, positive environment for at‐risk youth to channel their energy and creativity into the arts and education through hip hop and street dance. The first informational film featured the founder and returnee, Tuy 'Kay Kay' Sobil; the second was a new music video collaboration between Tiny Toones and Klap Ya Handz ('an independent hip hop and alternative music family thats changing the face of Khmer music') called 'Anakut', which featured young Khmer youth in a parody of doing grown up jobs.
The film segment was followed by a community discussion around social justice and the problems associated with the criminalization and deportation of political refugees. Some audience members bravely took the mic to express their thoughts on the event and the importance of hip hop in the Khmer community. Others, such as Dimple and Sarath stood up to explain a little about PRYSM (Providence Youth Student Movement), and what's being done in Rhode Island and Massachusetts in the fight against racial profiling of Khmer youth. They also spoke about the visibility and growth of the Khmer LGBTQ movement on the East Coast and beyond. In a show of solidarity, both were wearing matching t-shirts that read 'My Color is Not a Crime'.
Finally, Mia-Lia from the 1 Love Movement in Philadelphia took the mic to speak about the history of their movement against the deportation of Khmer-Americans. She (and Anida and Dimple) explained that it was ultimately the fault of the US that Cambodians are in America, in the first place, and now it is the fault of the US government that so many Khmer families continue to be ripped apart and experience loss due to deportations. In a nutshell, it was the US government who carpet bombed Cambodia during the Nixon/Kissinger era in the 1970s, which allowed the Khmer Rouge regime to gain power and ultimately slaughter 1.7 millions Khmers. It was then that the US government welcomed thousands of Khmer as political refugees into the US, where they suffered further structural discrimination, disenfranchisement, poverty, and gang violence. It was then ultimately the US government who incarcerated them, and are now forcibly deporting them back to Cambodia--a country many have never stepped foot in since most were born in Thai refugee camps. An audience member stood up and bravely admitted she had never even heard of this issue--a fact that is, sadly, not uncommon, and the reason important events like this one need to continue happening.
The night ended with an emotional impromptu rendition of 'Stand By Me' sung by Bohcan, joined by PraCh Ly. They encouraged everyone to participate, and by the end, nearly the entire audience, myself included, had joined them in a show of love and solidarity on the stage.
Through the arts, hip hop, spoken word, poetry and discussion, the evening was critically important in drawing attention to the injustices taking place within the Khmer community both in the US and Cambodia. Despite exclusion from the official Seasons of Cambodia Arts Festival programming, Anida and others fought hard to make this event happen. It's another example of the endless fighting spirit of the Khmer community. Thank you for never giving up.