Straight Outta Laos: 'The Betrayal' ('Nerakhoon') Chronicles the Journey of Political Refugees
By Bob Fisher
Eloquent and poetic yet devastatingly real, The Betrayal (Nerakhoon) is a deeply moving, personal film culminating from two decades of ideas and images created by Ellen Kuras, ASC (4 Little Girls; Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), who began working on the project at the dawn of her career. She is the producer, director and cinematographer of the 96-minute documentary.
The Betrayal takes the audience on a harrowing journey with the Phrasavath family from Laos, which was split asunder at the end of the Vietnam War. The father had fought on the US side, which made the family targets for the new Communist regime. Thavisouk (Thavi) Phrasavath, one of the sons, tells the story from a first-person perspective about how he escaped from Laos by swimming across the Mekong at age 12 and then later migrated with his family to the US as political refugees. He and his family were "resettled" in a rough neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York, and basically left to fend for themselves.
What makes The Betrayal a unique film is the way the personal weaves in and out of the political and the poetic speaks alongside the verities, while upholding a sense of mystery and drama that unfolds in the events of the family. The film is also a love story, and the story about the complexity of a father-son relationship.
"As a director and cinematographer, I see this film as a work of visual metaphor," Kuras says. "In more traditional documentaries, people tend to edit interviews or write narrations and use images to illustrate them. I wanted the images to stand on their own as part of the text. Images can refer to complex ideas and have many layers of meaning as unspoken subtext. I wanted the audience to discover the layers of meaning rather than give them tons of information to digest. To me, that differentiates making a film and writing a dissertation."
The origins of the film began in the early 1980s when Kuras studied Egyptian history and social anthropology at Brown University. The school had an exchange program with the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, where she took a class in still photography.
"The city was a melting pot for refugees from Southeast Asia to Eastern Europe to Africa," she recalls. "I often saw the Hmong walking on the streets in their traditional clothes carrying live chickens. Struck by the juxtapositions of culture, I asked them to become my first photography subjects. Their portraits were then exhibited at a museum where I interned."
Kuras decided to learn to speak Laotian so she could talk with older members of a family she met from that country. Around that time, she moved to New York City. Kuras heard that Laotian refugees were living in Brooklyn. She put the word out that she was looking for someone to teach her the language. Phrasavath called and asked why she wanted to learn it.
"Thavi came to my house two times a week, and I ended up asking him a zillion questions about his country, Lao philosophy and what stories he could remember from his past in Laos," Kuras says. "He told me stories about his grandmother and her family. When he was eight years old, his grandmother showed him where the umbilical cord that linked him to his mother was buried. She said his spirit would return to that place when he died. To me, this little story had so much meaning. I started recording our conversations and then writing the stories in script form. "
Those conversations were the spark that ignited her interest in producing a documentary about the Phrasavath family. Kuras had taken a class in Super-8 filmmaking at New York University, and was working as a freelancer on documentary and independent film crews. She purchased an ARRI SR 16mm camera and began filming interviews with Phrasavath and his family, who shared memories and feelings about the world they left behind and their thoughts about living as political refugees.
"Filmmaking has always been an exploration for me," Kuras says. "I gradually learned to use dramatic lighting as visual metaphor for telling stories with images."
In 1989, Ellen Bruno, a graduate student at Stanford University, recruited Kuras to travel to Cambodia with her to shoot a documentary, which was her thesis film. Samsara: Death and Rebirth in Cambodia won the Student Academy Award in 1990, and a Special Jury Prize at Sundance. That was the first credit Kuras earned.
In 1995, the Laotian government gave expatriates an opportunity to tour the nation's capital, where they could visit their relatives. Phrasavath excitedly called Kuras, as they had been trying for years to get into the country, which was still strictly controlled by the Communist government. She broke her 16mm and 8mm cameras and a tripod down into pieces, and hid them in her luggage along with 30 rolls of film, hoping not to get caught.
To their great fortune, Kuras and Phrasavath discovered that the tour guide had been one of two filmmakers in Laos. He helped to bypass the customs agent and get a permit to shoot "a home video" for the family. Under cover, they found a driver who took them to the village where the family lived, a 12-hour drive away on terrible roads and through flooded rivers.
"I did a lot of thinking while we were driving," Kuras recalls. "I wanted to get into Thavi's mind while I was filming profile shots of him talking about sights outside the windows, which stirred memories of his childhood. I have mental pictures of his expressions when he said, ‘My father was a soldier,' and when he pointed to the site where his grandmother said the umbilical cord was buried. I wanted to capture that feeling that takes you to a certain time and place. Being a filmmaker gives us the opportunity to share in peoples' lives that are unique and memorable. Being able to capture that on film is a gift. I will never forget the expression in one of his sister's eyes when he asked if she wanted to come to America with him."
Kuras shot about 130 hours of 16mm film and about 20 hours of content in various video formats and on 8mm film. She explained that the choice of media depended upon how she wanted to tell the story and the subject matter, even if that meant filming in a lower resolution medium. For the scenes of Phrasavath arriving to Brooklyn, she chose VHS video over 16mm, although she had the 16mm camera and film available; the video gave a feeling of the past, of really being present in that time and place. Sometimes, the choice of medium was a matter of serendipity.
She was in an editing room with Phrasavath when he got a call that a street gang was threatening his neighbors in Brooklyn. Kuras grabbed a VHS camera, the only camera in the room at the time, and jumped into her car and rode to the rescue. Although she filmed 16mm interviews with members of the family talking about the incident the next day, the VHS material is in the film.
Over the years, certain key events happened in the family, most of which were captured by Kuras because Phrasavath would alert her to whatever was occurring. "For years, Thavi and I had been talking about kids joining gangs, the phenomena of the rising gang life in Asian-American circles," Kuras recalls. "Thavi had no idea that his stepbrother was a member of a street gang. We've witnessed how the war in Southeast Asia moved to the streets of Brooklyn and other cities where the kids of refugees lost values and the sense of their heritage." When they got the call that Phrasavath's stepbrother had been killed, Kuras got them both on a plane that evening. Fortunately, she wasn't shooting a film at the time.
She was shooting a film, however, when warned of a pivotal event about to happen. "I was beside myself with anxiety. Thavi didn't want a strange person shooting the family during such an emotional time, so I showed him how to use the Hi8 camera and he filmed it himself."
Post-production of The Betrayal was completed at Deluxe Toronto in HDSR and filmed out at eFILM Hollywood. Joe Gawler, Kuras' colorist on dramatic films and commercials, did the final color correction at Deluxe in New York. The documentary was filmed on over ten different stocks available over the years--a veritable Kodak catalogue. Phrasavath edited the film offline with guidance from Kate Amend, the recipient of the 2005 IDA Award for Outstanding Documentary Achievement in Editing.
"I'm a believer in giving people the power to tell their own stories and to speak in their own voice," Kuras explains. "Thavi has a sense of rhythm, a good eye and he kept the momentum of the film going, even when I was off shooting feature after feature. That's why I wanted to share the director credit with him. It is important that the Lao know that they have a voice in the world."
The documentary will be released in early November 2008 through The Cinema Guild and is also slated to air on PBS' P.O.V. series in 2009.
Kuras concludes, "The Betrayal focuses on one family, yet it is a universal story about the loss of innocence in every way--as people affected and betrayed by war, as a culture losing its values, as a son betrayed by his father."
Bob Fisher has been writing about documentary and narrative filmmaking for nearly 40 years, mainly focusing on cinematography and preservation.