Thavisouk and Orady Phrasavath in The Betrayal
In the waning years of the Vietnam War, covert US operations spilled over into the neighboring countries of Laos and Cambodia through which the North Vietnamese were routing supplies and staging attacks in the south. When the Americans withdrew in 1975, the thousands of locals they’d recruited to help fight the enemy were rounded up and sent to re-education camps by the victorious communists.
Fearing for their own safety, the family of one of these men, the Phravasaths, fled Laos for Thailand and ultimately made their way to the United States in the hope the country their father had helped would return the favor. Told that they were moving to heaven on earth, the Phravasaths instead found a new hell as they were deposited into an overcrowded tenement in a dangerous slum of Brooklyn, New York.
Telling this story is Thavisouk Phravasath, now a man but then just a boy who found himself responsible for keeping his 8 siblings, their culture and their very identity together in a hostile environment. In 1984, Thavi met future cinematographer Ellen Kuras (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) who was looking for someone to teach her to speak the Lao language for a film she was working on. The two bonded and Kuras began recording the family’s story, which she would continue to do off and on for the next 23 years. The result is The Betrayal (Nerakhoon), a remarkable documentary that traces the ups and mostly downs of one immigrant family in a nation of immigrants. Co-directed by Phravasath himself, the portrait that emerges is sad and frustrating, but also a testament to the will of a people to survive against all odds.
With no narration or outside commentary, the imagery alone is striking and the weight of the story builds gradually as Thavi is captured in conversation with his mother or just expressing himself to the camera. As disappointment follows upon disappointment, the emotional gravity grows and the small victories become all the more poignant. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the story reaches a climax that is surprisingly moving.
For the Phravasaths, the US abandonment of its allies was just the first betrayal of many and the film’s title refers to all of them. In the end each can be traced back to the ultimate offense: the betrayal of our own humanity as we wage war on one another. Long after the end of the Vietnam War, the reasons for its fighting have become fuzzy, but the ripples of suffering have continued to spread outward and wounds are still unhealed. The Phravasaths are just one example. How many other stories are there that have never been told? How many more are being written right now?
Short-listed for the documentary Oscar, The Betrayal has already played in New York and it opens this weekend (1/16/09) in Los Angeles. It will play on PBS’ POV program some time this year.
The Betrayal (Nerakhoon). USA 2008. Directed by Ellen Kuras and co-directed by Thavisouk Phrasavath. Written by Ellen Kuras and Thavisouk Phrasavath. Cinematography by Ellen Kuras. Edited by Thavisouk Phrasavath. Music composed by Howard Shore. 1 hour 36 minutes. Not rated by the MPAA. 4 stars (out of 5)