Thavisouk and Orady Phrasavath in The Betrayal
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)

9 Responses to “Review: The Betrayal (2008) ****”

  1. Great review. Appetite thoroughly whetted, now I want to see it!

  2. Totally, I want to see it soon too.

  3. Great review, Craig. I’m glad you took the time to write it and I’m glad someone other than me gave this some attention, because it deserves it.

    I think what struck me the most about this was Thavi’s will to survive through so many “betrayals”, while never complaining about his circumstances or blaming everyone around him. He has an admirable composition.

    As I said yesterday, this isn’t one that I would have pegged for an Oscar nod when I saw it last APril, but from what made this shortlist I’m happy that this might end up with one.

  4. Thavi reminded me in some was of Kim and Scott from Trouble the Water. They were repeatedly handed a giant shit sandwich and they never complained about it, simply tried to make the most of a bad situation and managed to pull through.

    Like you, it was that spirit that I took away from the film most and it was only afterward I started thinking about some of the other social factors like the impact of war.

    It took me a while for the film to grab me though. It built up very slowly but it got me when ***spoiler*** the father revealed he had another family. It was like the last straw. They were given a glimmer of hope and it was the first time you saw Orady smile and laugh, only to have it ripped away. ***end spoiler*** I was also struck how the title doesn’t just refer to a straight forward betrayal. It’s more complex than that. Not only does the family experience many themselves, but in some ways they’re responsible for a few. The father could be seen as having betrayed his country. The mother betraying the two daughters who were left behind.

    I’m not passing judgment on either action, I still think ultimately it can be blamed on the impact of war, but still. It made for a richer movie for me.

    It sucks the release of this has been so scattershot, though I suppose they were just hoping for some Oscar attention and they were banking on the POV play later this year.

  5. Good points all. Regarding POV, well we know I’m a champion of it, but Up the Yangtze’s airing on it this October didn’t do much to help that campaign, if it was even eligible.

    Interesting note about Trouble the Water and a lot of other recent documentaries. None of them originated as what they ended up being – Nerakhoon, Trouble, Zachary, My Kid Could Paint that (last year).

  6. The unexpectedness is one of the things that makes them so great. It’s neat to see a filmmaker going in with a set of preconceived expectations but having to readjust their thinking as they go along.

  7. Wonderful review, Craig. I too want to see this as soon as I can.

  8. I agree, Daniel. That’s one of the beauties of documentary film making and the reason why documentaries like the ones you mentioned stand out from the strict, informational documentaries that tend to crowd Oscar and theaters. As much as I enjoyed Gonzo, Standard Operating Procedure, Man on Wire, etc, docs like Trouble the Water, Up the Yangtze, and Dear Zachary stand out because the subject matter is a living breathing entity, morphing and changing right there in front of the camera.

    It’s breathtaking to behold.

  9. “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.”

    Indeed, beautifully interpreted and conveyed, and i quite agree as I saw it at Manhattan’s IFC a few weeks back. I also suscribe to the “living breathing entity, morphing and changing right there in front of the camera” statement by Joel in response to your suimilarly posed observation. This under-exposed, moving documentary deserves to make the shortlist.

    Wonderful and precise essay as always.

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