Since I began making this film in 1984, The Betrayal (Nerakhoon) has been an ongoing personal dialogue for me about the themes of life and death, of change in society and of philosophy. The making of this film has also paralleled my own personal journey as a cinematographer, poet and filmmaker. I’ve been intrigued by the loss of innocence in war and the loss of moral and ethical values in our society as adopted by newly landed immigrants, and how this loss mirrors our own losses in America. The questions of identity, of what happens to people without land, or a connection to land and home and of the fight for land is one that has captured my thoughts since university, when I studied the plight and the loss of self of Native Americans, and at the same time, wondered about my own place as the granddaughter of Polish immigrants.
In this way, this film is as much as my own story as it is the story of many others.
Making this film actually inspired me to become one of the most respected cinematographers in the world. When I began to film back in 1984, I decided that I would try to shoot the film myself. I was looking for a way to tell the story with images, to allow the images to speak with as much weight as words through visual metaphors. This started, in a way, what still informs my work today — a desire to make images that carry meaning rather than just being visual illustrations or representations.
At that time, I wanted to depart from the conventions of the documentary form. I didn’t want to make a traditional documentary. I wanted to make a film that merged ideas from both documentary and dramatic film as well as experimental film. From the beginning, I envisioned The Betrayal as a combination of cinema verite, re-photographed archival footage and other elements that could enable me to get closer to the idea of a very personal point of view of memory. I tried to imagine that the film’s point of view of the would be as if I were shooting from the perspective of a character, and then that character walks into his or her own point of view. The film could then be told in a very personal voice and at the same time, observe that person in the world around him.
This point of view happened to become the voice of one Lao man whose story captured my interest and whose poetic sensibilities and ability to recount stories from his childhood kept me rapt with attention. I have been listening, and still am listening, after all of these years. Following this family and being a part of their lives over such a span of time was only possible because of my collaboration and close friendship with Thavisouk “Thavi” (pronounced ta-vee) Phrasavath.
Our connection was immediate; our bond, lifelong.
The Betrayal is the culmination of stories, and of the time spent together between two people from very different cultures. The beauty of having filmed The Betrayal over so many years is that the themes of life and death are intimately played out in this family drama in a way that only time can reveal.
The Betrayal has become a part of my life, and it has profoundly moved others in a way that no other film has. I believe that the American betrayal of our Laotian allies reverberated, unfolding more betrayals, ultimately shaking the core of one family. For Thavi, his family and many others, the war has never really ended.
Filmmaker, The Betrayal
On May 25, 1982, I came to the United States from Laos as a political refugee. My objective was to survive and stay alive in Brooklyn, N.Y. — working to pay rent, buy food and ensure the safety of all of my family members. Becoming an artist never even entered my dreams. A first generation immigrant and political refugee from the un-popular Vietnam War, I was often questioned by Americans: Who are you? What are you doing here? Though I constantly tried to tell my story, it didn’t matter — why should anyone care? Few even knew that Laos was a country, let alone where it exists on the world map. Not even JFK knew how to pronounce the name of my country.
During my early time in America, I did everything I could to camouflage myself, to blend in — by changing my body language, learning local English expressions, adapting popular clothing styles. Sometimes, when I tried too hard, I ended up with a Michael Jackson hairdo and the personality of Bobby Brown, wearing MC Hammer pants, Duran Duran stocking gloves and Gene Simmons boots, as I cruised up and down Flatbush Avenue. Even I began to ask myself who I had become and what I would be
It doesn’t matter what I did or how much I tried, the harder I threw myself into the arms of American society, the harder I bounced back against my own self. And there I found myself asking bigger questions regarding my ancestors’ roots, my own identity and political history. What had happened to us? Who had started all of these things? I was not trying to fabricate evidence for judging anybody, but to have a better understanding and a better value of my own integrity. I tried and I tried. I came to realize that America is not the big melting pot that I believed it to be, but rather a gigantic wok of races, ethnicities and individuals — a stir-fry. Being of an imaginary people in a strange land, a man without country or dignity, it didn’t take long for America to frustrate me. But out of this frustration, desperation and confusion, I began to search for my lost memories of a horrific childhood experience of war.
Then one fateful day, I received a phone call from a total stranger. Who was this person who was interested in learning how to speak my mother tongue and hearing about my history? That stranger was cinematographer, director and writer Ellen Kuras. Since then, my journey has taken a 180-degree turn. We became close friends, then collaborators — and our great journey together began. When Ellen asked me to be the subject of this film, and a collaborator as well, I was deeply honored. But I never imagined that this journey would take 23 years to complete. Yet it’s been 23 years of spiritual and mental therapy, of searching my soul.
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, to never fear of speaking out and how to be myself.
Filmmaker, The Betrayal