POV: Ellen, Thavi, can you tell us how you met and came to make The Betrayal (Nerakhoon)?
Ellen Kuras: I met Thavi over 20 years ago, when I was looking to learn to speak Lao. Thavi got my number through some contacts, called me up and said, “I’m shocked that somebody wants to learn to speak my language.” I remember the moment I met him very distinctly: I saw a kindred spirit in front of me. He would come to my house every week to teach me to speak Lao, and ever since then Thavi and I have known we were kindred souls.
Thavisouk “Thavi” Phrasavath: After I’d been teaching Ellen Lao for some time, one day I asked her, “Why do you want to learn to speak my language?” Ellen said, “I want to make a film about a Laotian.” When she started making the film, we didn’t know exactly what it was going to be. But she and I spent a lot of time talking to each other, and we realized that we had the same philosophy.
Kuras: Before I met Thavi, I already wanted to make a film about the Laotian community in America, because I knew its stories hadn’t been told. I was also interested in what had happened to Laos during the Vietnam War. I actually started making a film about a Laotian immigrant in Rochester, New York. But once I started learning Lao from Thavi and talking to Thavi, I began to realize that the film would be about Thavi — who is a very poetic figure — and his family. I started taping the conversations that Thavi and I were having, and it’s from those conversations that we derived some of the stories that are in the film, including the stories and the prophecies that his grandmother told.
POV: Thavi, many Americans don’t know about the role of Laos in the Vietnam War. Can you tell us a little bit about Laos, and about your father’s involvement in the war?
Phrasavath: Laos is a landlocked country located between Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Burma and China. During the Vietnam War, Laos become very important in terms of military strategy, because it shares a border with both North and South Vietnam. During the war, the North Vietnamese used the Ho Chi Minh trail, which was mostly in Laotian territory, to fight the Americans. Laos was neutral, but the Americans landed there and conducted a secret air war. My father was chosen by the Americans to be a CIA informant and to locate the enemy along the Ho Chi Minh trail. Basically, he helped the Americans locate bombing targets within his own country.
POV: Can you tell us what The Betrayal is about for you?
Kuras: The film depicts the journey of a Laotian person — Thavi — as he goes back into the past to understand the present and to understand what happened to his family as they came to the United States from Laos after the Vietnam War.
The Betrayal can also be seen as a classic American immigrant story. It is the story of a person leaving his homeland and coming to the United States, and about what happens to him when he faces the prospect of living in a place that is alien to his culture and to his values. It’s also a personal story of betrayal, as well as a political story of betrayal. The film is also about American history, especially American foreign policy and how it affected Laos and Laotians. In a way, this film tries to fill in a page of history and tell a story about American history and about Laotian history that had not been told previously.
POV: Thavi, can you tell us if you encountered any particular surprises during the making of the film?
Phrasavath: To me, the most surprising and unexpected part of making the film was encountering the historical part of it. When I first came to the United States, I was not really ready to face that history. I just wanted to assimilate, be American and forget my past. I didn’t really understand why I was in the United States, because I didn’t really understand what was happening in terms of the political history of Laos.
Through making this film, I learned about almost every element of my own history — about the Vietnam War, about how Laos got involved in the secret air war and how it became the most bombed country in the world. It was amazing to look at that history and also live it at the same time. I feel as though I’m living history, in a sense, by being part of the film.
POV: Ellen, you shot the film, and Thavi, you edited it. Can you guys talk about your artistic collaboration?
Phrasavath: The artistic collaboration on this film began very early, when Ellen and I were talk about different aspects of Laotian and American culture and talking about the visual metaphors. In certain ways, I saw the United States through Ellen’s eyes, and she saw the Laotian world through my eyes, and our visions were able to cross paths, which led to our deep artistic collaboration.
When audiences ask, “How did Ellen know to zoom in at that particular moment?” I tell them that she understood and spoke the language, but also that she was able to be part of my Laotian world very easily. We trusted each other, but I think we also understood each other visually and culturally.
Kuras: As Thavi said, our collaboration originally began with discussions about the philosophy of the Laotian people. Then he became much more of a participant in the filmmaking process when he began editing one sequence of the escape from Laos. Thavi was working as an assistant in the editing room then, and one day I said to Thavi, “Why don’t you try to put that scene together? You were there. It happened to you.”
Thavi worked on it for a day or two and then showed me the result. I sat there and looked at the cut and I was amazed. I said, “I love the way you put all of the images together and the way you put the jump cuts together.” He said, “So, what’s a jump cut?” I was stunned. I said, “Forget about what a jump cut is. Just do what your intuition tells you to do.” And that’s how Thavi began to put stuff together in the editing room.
POV: Ellen, you’re an award-winning cinematographer. What was it like directing a film for the first time?
Kuras: As a cinematographer, I work for other people and I shoot all the time. For me, it was very scary to put The Betrayal out there, because I have a reputation as a cinematographer, and with The Betrayal I’m putting out something that’s a very personal work, that’s my own work, which is a wholly different thing.
Through working on this film, I think I learned a lot about the creative process, and working with other people, especially in terms of communicating ideas with them. The film also demanded great sacrifice from me personally, because, like anything that takes years to finish, it consumed a lot of my energy and thoughts. I’ve had it in my mind for 23 years, and all of my free time has been devoted to trying to finish the film. Now that it is done, I feel a sense of freedom and elation and a desire to move on to other creative work.