Directed by Ellen Kuras, with the assistance of her film’s main subject, Thavisouk Phrasavath (who shares co-director credit), The Betrayal: Nerakhoon follows a family of Lao immigrants in New York struggling to rebuild their lives after sociopolitical upheavals forced them to leave their native country. (Phrasavath’s father had worked for the CIA, choosing targets for U.S. bombings.)
Approximately 20 years in the making, The Betrayal: Nerakhoon, which was screened at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, marked the directorial debut of New Jersey-born cinematographer Ellen Kuras. A two-time Emmy and Independent Spirit Award nominee, winner of three Sundance best cinematography awards, and a recipient of the Cinereach Award (given to “the filmmaker who exemplifies masterful use of craft in conveying a vital message”), Kuras’ extensive list of credits include Be Kind Rewind, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Analyze That, I Shot Andy Warhol, Swoon, and Post Cards from America.
In his Variety review, Scott Foundas says The Betrayal “brings an affecting personal dimension to a sprawling sociopolitical narrative, intimately detailing how the agendas designed to advance the interests of nations can destroy individual lives.” A lesson as relevant today as ever.
Ellen Kuras had kindly agreed to answer a few questions (via e-mail) about The Betrayal. See below.
Photos: Courtesy of Ellen Kuras
How would you describe your experience of documenting the life of a subject who also happens to be your co-director?
When I began this project in 1984, I had begun to make the film about a family living in Rochester, NY, and didn’t even know Thavi at the time. When I realized that speaking the Lao language would give me a way of understanding the people and the culture better, and enable me to be respectful of their traditions (why would I expect these newly-grounded refugees to speak my language?), I sought out a Lao person who could teach me to speak Lao. My number was passed onto Thavisouk, who at 19 years old, was a young community leader in Brooklyn. Thavi called me asking, “Who are you? Why would you want to learn my language?” as few people in the US had ever expressed an interest in where he came from or why.
After our lessons twice a week, I would ask Thavi questions about his beliefs learned in Laos, the philosophy, any stories he could remember from his grandparents and parents. These stories became the thread of the film throughout all of the years of its making.
During the course of making the film over the past 23 years, I was always the director of the film, but as I work in a very collaborative spirit, I included Thavi in the creative process of the film. I set out to make a film which would enable the Lao to have a voice in the world. I wanted to make a first-person film without being that person. What has emerged in this film is a piece in which both of our voices are heard, seen and felt – a dialogue, which mirrors the many conversations that we’ve shared over the years about life, death, and philosophy.
When the film was near to finishing, I wanted to share the director credit with Thavi, as I felt that it is incredibly important for his community to see that they have a voice in the world and can take the means of the media to express themselves.
It’s important that Thavi is recognized as a filmmaker in his own right.
What was interesting about Thavi editing his own story was that he began to speak about himself in the third person – as if we were describing a character!
Why (and how) did both of you decide to make a documentary about the emigration of Mr. Phrasavath’s family from Laos to the United States?
When I was a senior at Brown University, I began to work at a museum in Providence designing exhibitions around immigration and came to know many of the refugees recently resettled in the area. Among those were the Cambodians and the Hmong who were the hilltribes from Laos. The enigma of their situation in the States – the fact that they had fought a war for the US and yet were unrecognized here in the US because the war was a secret air war [that was only] unofficially recognized – intrigued me.
I was further drawn into the story when I met more Lao refugees in Rochester, NY, when I went to the Visual Studies Workshop to study photography. These Lao were lowland Lao who were the soldiers who fought for the US on the ground. I wrote a grant to the National Endowment of the Humanities to make a film about these Lao (the Hmong had already had several films made about them) as they were unknown and had no voice here in America.
I began to film a family, intending to look at what values new immigrants pick up from American culture and how that compared to the Lao world view, influenced by Buddhist thought and way of life. However, the form of this film I envisioned would not be cinéma vérité – or a pure documentary-style approach; I was intersected in making a poetic film about life and philosophy of a people, and the loss of values encountered in their real and spiritual lives as impacted by the war and relocation to America, where our value system is eroding more and more.
When I met Thavi, I realized that his stories could carry the depth of meaning – through metaphor – of the message that would emerge about our society and life.
Little did I know, little did Thavi and I both know, that the film would follow the trajectory of his family’s journey over the number of years it did. Our collaboration and friendship came together because of the film and became an ongoing dialogue which will live beyond the film.
The Betrayal is both a political film and a highly personal story. What kind of balance did you strive for?
This balance was the most difficult challenge in trying to structure the film.
We wanted audiences to have an understanding of the political and historical underpinnings of why the family had to leave Laos, as well as mention the colonial history, which affected them before the American war. (I really wanted to make the connection of colonialism in Laos to colonialism as a phenomenon that has affected people worldwide.) Also, the political landscape of Laos at the time of the war was a complex one, so we struggled with what details to tell without the film becoming a history lesson.
Being interested in political documentary films before I began shooting narrative films, I was keen to get the story out about how American foreign policy directly impacts upon the lives of those people whom we recruit as our allies on foreign soil. We knew that we had to give certain facts to give the audience a sense of time, place, and events. For a while, we used a rollup, which listed a brief chronology of events and facts. Then I came up with the idea to use very succinct, spare factual statements to place the family situation in a broader historical context in a series of archival glimpses, which would illuminate these events.
Thavi, who caught onto the idea, then edited an intro, which is in the current cut of the film.
Who decided what would go into the film and what would be left out? And how did those decisions come about?
During the years, we had edited together a number of scenes but hadn’t found the right balance of story until Cara Mertes at the Sundance Institute invited us to participate in their producers and composers seminars in Utah. Taking the past cuts and the additions that contributing editors had helped to shape, Thavi and I spent three weeks in blitz sessions to organize the scenes into a coherent cut. (I say “blitz” because I was prepping during the day to shoot a film with Michel Gondry, and we had to work during the early mornings and late into the night.) We did a paper cut first, including the more poetic scenes that imparted what we wanted to say on a more universal level and put together the scenes of the family in a more dramatic approach.
We wanted the audience to put the pieces together themselves and discover the film as a drama with mystery. We didn’t want to inundate them with information and tell them what to think; we wanted them to find the meaning on their own. From the very beginning, I never intended to make this film as a pure cinéma vérité documentary; I always wanted to use the images as visual metaphors that told as much of the story as the words spoken by the people in the film and by the text. When Thavi began editing the film with me, he understood what it meant by “visual metaphor” and was able to choose those images that worked. For example, the water buffalo shots, for me, imparted a sense of innocence – these kids playing innocently on the water buffalo.
When Thavi brought back the shots of the water buffalo at the end of the film, after Thavi had gone through so much of the war and with his family, we realize that innocence is lost – his innocence as a child growing up in war and our innocence as human beings.
In his Variety review, Scott Foundas says that you managed “to have her camera running at just the right times to capture several stranger-than-fiction dramatic moments,” including some major family revelations. How did that happen?
What most people never knew was that I actually had another life going on concurrently with my career as a cinematographer in the film world; I was hanging out in Brooklyn with Thavi during every moment I had while not shooting other films. Thavi and I were in constant contact and most times, I was able to grab my camera and be witness and become part of whatever was happening to the family. When Thavi got the telegram that a call would be coming in from Thailand, I ran with my film camera and our soundperson to be there with the family at that moment. When the call came in about Thavi’s step brother, I was lucky not to be on a film at the time and we hopped on a plane that evening.
One time, however, I was not present-when Thavi’s father returned to the family for the first time. I was shooting a film and when I suggested to Thavi that someone else cover the moment, he wasn’t comfortable with a stranger in such an emotional and personal time in the family. We then agreed that he would shoot whatever was happening, so I showed him how to use the hi 8 camera. Those are the scenes that are in the film now.
What sort of impact do you hope that The Betrayal will have on those who see it?
I hope that people see how war never really ends in the hearts and mind of those people who are involved, especially those that we pledge loyalty to and those that we betray in our own self interest. Our betrayal shakes the very core of their value system and ends up sending reverberations which reach far beyond for years and years.
We as a people in America need to reevaluate our responsibility to those that we entice to fight our wars for us; we need to reevaluate our foreign policy and the long-ranging effects that our foreign policy has throughout the world and on global migration.
I hope that The Betrayal enables people to think about their own family relationships and the responsibility that involves family. I hope that we all will think about our values and the erosion of those values as a people, as human beings.
The Betrayal is scheduled to open in New York and Los Angeles on November 7. PBS’s P.O.V. will show the film in June 2009.