The Oscar Awards don’t usually catch my attention since I prefer to enjoy films on my own terms. But when I noticed that The Betrayal (Nerakhoon) had made the Best Documentary Feature nominee list for this year, I was intrigued. What other films were competing with this remarkable accomplishment? I wondered. When I referred to the nominee list, I was pleased to find that Werner Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World is also a contender. At that moment I committed myself to watch all five nominations before the awards ceremony and report on them.
The Betrayal (Nerakhoon)
My decision to screen The Betrayal at Toronto’s Hot Docs Festival in 2008 was born out of a desire to understand something of Laos since my partner had spent the previous year living there. I screened many films during those two weeks and felt a compulsion to skip The Betrayal because it was a sunny, spring afternoon and the magnolias trees were in full bloom. The last thing I wanted was a history lesson in a dark, stuffy theatre.
But from the opening shots of a boy on the back of a swimming water buffalo glinting in the sunlight I was entranced. Director Ellen Kuras has an eye for capturing images for sure. She is a highly respected cinematographer (Blow, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) before turning to directing. But she has been a director all along. She started filming The Betrayal in 1984 although she didn’t know in which the direction the project would go or how far-reaching an audience it would capture.
The story is that of the betrayal of Laotians by the U.S. Army who were expected to effectively quash the Pathet Lao (the Laotian version of the Viet Cong and an extension of the Vietnamese Communist movement.) But much more than that, it is the betrayal of a family by a father, a brother by siblings, and the betrayal of a foreign nation that promised shelter, riches and freedom to war-battered immigrants.
Laos experienced the worst bombing the world has ever known and its people are still suffering from the ravages of a war that they didn’t want to participate in to begin with. The Guardian reported on Wednesday 3rd December 2008, that Laos was hit by an average of one B-52 bomb-load every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, between 1964 and 1973. Today, the country is still still riddled with mines and bombs (see photojournalist Joe Wenkoff’s poingnant photo essay: “Laos – Moving Past the War”.)
The subject of the film is Thavisouk Phrasavath, the eldest of twelve children and who maintains a canny consciousness of the experiences that his family undergoes as they become separated when he, his mother and nine of his siblings escape as refugees to an equally threatening Brooklyn, New York.
Phrasavath spoke after the Hot Docs screening to an audience still struggling to quiet sobs. He himself was so moved by the reaction that he took a moment to compose himself before he launched into an explanation of the construction of the film. Kuras had hired Phrasavath initially to help her learn Laotian because she had an idea of making a documentary about the persecution of the Hmong. When she discovered that Phrasavath himself was a persecuted Hmong, he began to share the epic story of his life. From his early childhood, through the war, to his daring escape across the Mekong River at age twelve, to his struggle for survival in a poverty-stricken neighbourhood in New York where she met him; Kuras was hooked. Here was a man who survived war, would survive immigration, survive crushed dreams, and was still capable of forgiveness and humour. They colluded well together on the project because Kuras herself proved to be equally perseverant and philosophical.
The film was cobbled together from 90 hours of just about every format imaginable: VHS, 16mm, Hi-8, Beta and archival news footage. It is at times a poem, a reconstruction of Phrasavath’s memories, and at times an intimate witness to a family under the worst kinds of human challenges.
Phrasavath himself began to work on the film after sitting year after year in the edit suite. He was constantly being abandoned by Kuras who would jet off to L.A. to work on her “paying” gigs, so he started to direct the editor. At first Kuras was upset with him, but he eventually persuaded her to see that in essence he was re-creating his life using her images. The experience made Phrasavath become incredibly aware. “This was war explaining itself to me,” he narrates.
With this film, Kuras and Phrasavath achieved an incredibly moving portrayal of a family living with the remnants of war. It is a story told by brave family members who are committed to sharing their human struggles and recorded by a compassionate filmmaker who recognized from the very beginning that even the harshest of lives contain astonishing beauty and poetry.