The costs of contemporary war have rarely been captured with as much intimacy, poetry and sense of history as they are in The Betrayal (Nerakhoon). Nominated this year for the Academy Award(R) for Best Documentary, the film marks the directorial debut of Ellen Kuras, an award-winning cinematographer whose credits include Michel Gondry's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Ted Demme's Blow, Spike Lee's 4 Little Girls and Summer of Sam and Harold Ramis's Analyze That.
At the heart of the making of The Betrayal is a unique, 23-year collaboration with Thavisouk ("Thavi") Phrasavath, a young Laotian refugee the director met when seeking language lessons while filming another project in 1984. The lessons soon turned into long conversations about Lao culture and philosophy, the country's recent tragic history and the story of Thavi's own tortured trip from Laos to Brooklyn — from being a 12-year-old hero-worshipping son of a Royal Lao officer to a beleaguered son and brother trying to keep his fatherless family together on America's gang-ridden streets. It's a story rich in ancient Lao lore and sensibility, seen through the fractured glass of geo-political violence and scrambled again by the realities of America's poor inner city.
The Betrayal begins chillingly with a 5,000-year-old Lao prophecy, as related by Thavi's grandmother, about a time when "the universe will break. It will break piece-by-piece, country-by-country and religion-by-religion. Husband and wife will break into two. The children will escape into the wind..."
As a boy in the '60s and '70s, Thavi, by his own account, idolized his father, an officer in the Royal Army of Laos. War then seemed a normal, if somewhat distant condition to the boy, though he understood little about the politics behind it. His mother proudly followed her husband on tours of duty while bearing him 10 children. (Thavi was the second child and the oldest son in the family.) Then came a day when the patriarch disappeared, but not before warning the family to stay close to home until they heard from him again. Thavi's father had joined a clandestine army formed by the CIA. Like many Lao officers in the Royal Army, he believed American patronage would lead to a greater future for the army and the country.
The United States, meanwhile, was primarily interested in disrupting the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the main route by which the North Vietnamese supplied the Viet Cong, and later their own units, in South Vietnam. Along with thousands of his countrymen, Thavi's father engaged in a clandestine war against the Communists and gathered intelligence for the CIA. Most importantly, he helped guide massive U.S. carpet-bombing by B-52s of his own country — a fact he ruefully recalls in The Betrayal when thinking of all that later befell his country and family.
By 1973, the United States had dropped almost three million tons of bombs on Laos, more than were dropped during all of World Wars I and II combined. Besides churning up massive amounts of Laotian ground and killing unknown thousands, the bombings and clandestine operations had the effect of heating up the simmering conflict between native Royalists and Communists (the Pathet Lao), further destabilizing the country. Thavi recalls the day the rockets and bombs started falling around the family's home. The war then came to an end when the Americans pulled out of Vietnam and abandoned their Laotian allies to the Pathet Lao who had taken over the country.
Thavi's father came home, but not for long. Declared an enemy of the state, he was taken away, either to a hard-labor re-education camp or to be executed — the family didn't know. Shunned by neighbors and harassed by the government, Thavi and his mother made plans to escape to Thailand along with his nine brothers and sisters. Thavi, then 12, was thought to have the best chance to make it alone, so he went first ahead of the others, swimming across the Mekong River at night on two inflated plastic bags. Two years later, his mother and most of his siblings fled across the river. Given only an hour's notice, Thavi's mother had to leave behind two of her daughters, the oldest and youngest, as they were visiting their grandmother. Later, after reuniting in a Thai refugee camp, Thavi, his mother and the rest of his family sought asylum in the United States, because, as Thavi explains, most Laotians thought of America as "one step from heaven."
Upon arriving, the family's expectations about America were tested when their sponsors deposited them in a crowded two-room tenement apartment shared with other Cambodian and Vietnamese refugees and located right next door to a crack house in the middle of multicultural urban life of Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn. Disoriented by their jarring insertion into American culture and desperate to find stability, Thavi and his mother tried to imprint their native cultural values on the younger children, but they faced increasing resistance as the kids begin to assimilate more and more into American culture.
Even more pressure mounted as Southeast Asian gangs began to form as a response to the violence in their neighborhoods. And then, shocking news would reveal the true meaning of nerakhoon — the acts of betrayal — both within and outside of the family.
Thavi continues to serve as the head of an increasingly fractured household and lend emotional support to his heartbroken mother, even as he struggles to regain his own sense of order and purpose — for peace and harmony promised by Laos's dominant Buddhist culture — in a world marked by borders, chaos and betrayal.
In a true labor of love, Ellen Kuras, with the increasing participation of Thavi Phrasavath as co-director and editor, has crafted a lyrical and meditative film, weaving archival footage, cinema verite, interviews and striking voiceovers into a powerfully poetic montage. The Betrayal (Nerakhoon) is a film about exile, the far-reaching consequences of war and the bonds of family that can be betrayed but never forgotten. It is also about strength and survival, and the human spirit's capacity to adapt, forgive and rebuild.
"For me, working on The Betrayal has been an ongoing dialogue with Thavi about themes of life and death, of change in society and of philosophy," says Ellen. "I've been intrigued by the loss of innocence in war, the loss of moral and ethical values in our society as adopted by newly landed immigrants and how this loss mirrors our own in America. The beauty of having filmed The Betrayal over so many years is that these themes of life are intimately played out in this family drama in a way that only time can reveal."
Says Thavi, "Through the process of making The Betrayal, I've been given the opportunity to become a filmmaker and find my true self. I have learned a great deal about how to speak my mind, how to never fear speaking out and how to be myself."
The Betrayal (Nerakhoon) is a co-production of Pandinlao Films, American Documentary | POV and POV's Diverse Voices Project, with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). It is funded in part by the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM).