POV: Ellen, you’ve shot so many significant fiction films. Can you talk about your approach as a cinematographer, your use of visual poetry and how that influenced the telling of the story in The Betrayal (Nerakhoon)?
Ellen Kuras: I actually started shooting because of this film! Years ago, I was a photographer, but I became interested in film. I started to make a film about Laotians in America, and I worked with a commercial cameraman, who shot some footage. I was very naïve about the process, and I told him about my ideas and themes. I wanted him to create certain relationships through the camera, and at the time I didn’t know that this was called building “visual metaphor.” When I looked at the footage he had shot, I realized that something was missing. What was missing was the essence, the ideas. The shots were good, but they didn’t have meaning. So I decided to do it myself, and I picked up the camera and started shooting, even though I didn’t know anything. Through that experience, I was really able to explore the idea of visual metaphor: imagery that’s very beautiful, but that also means something underneath the surface — the images have as much meaning and weight as the words. And that’s what I’ve done in my cinematography work ever since. I think that’s probably what makes my work different than other people’s work; I think a lot about how to create meaning with the images.
POV: Tell us about the different formats that you employed for shooting during the 23 years you worked on the film.
Kuras: Selecting the formats to shoot on was partially a creative choice, and partially a choice made out of necessity. In 1984, I started shooting in 16 millimeter, and to convey memory I also used Super 8, because I love the look of it and because I wanted to have a format that had a more tactile feel to it, which Super 8 does, to impart the sense of first-person to the story of Thavi’s escape and to other moments from his memory.
When the gangs were terrorizing the family, Thavi called me, and the only camera I had at my fingertips was an old VHS camera. I didn’t even have a fresh tape! I grabbed a used tape and threw it in the camera and off we went to Brooklyn. So, we ended up shooting that whole scene of Thavi in the car while I was driving. The camera was in my lap, and I was driving with my left foot and holding the camera up and pointing it at Thavi with my right leg.
At the very end of production, when I needed to shoot the postcards for the little history sequence at the beginning of the film, I was working on a commercial, and we ended up shooting that sequence on 35 millimeter. Then a friend of mine had one of the first RED cameras, and we shot the end of the film, the sequences with Thavi and Mouky, with that RED camera.
I often joke that The Betrayal, shot over 23 years, also shows the history of Kodak film stock.
POV: How would you describe the film’s style?
Kuras: I think that the film has very strong poetic elements, but what surprised me is the emergence and strength of the cinéma vérité style, especially in the latter part of the film. In setting out, I didn’t intend to make a cinéma vérité film. I didn’t want just to follow someone around and document every aspect of his life. Instead, I was trying to put narrative elements together with poetic elements, because I was looking for a way to talk about a more universal philosophy. In the end, the film is a combination of the poetic and cinéma vérité styles.
POV: Thavi, what’s it like to edit a film when you are also its subject?
Thavisouk “Thavi” Phrasavath: Every time I looked at myself, I thought, “Why is Ellen so close up on my teeth?” or something like that!
But of course I was also looking at myself as the subject at the same time. During the process, I began to realize that to be able to edit this character — who happened to be myself — I had to learn to be very honest about what was in my heart and to tell the story truthfully. So I had to look past some of the physical elements when looking at myself and find the emotions to bring out what was needed to tell the story of the film.
But it was always very hard. In particular, I had a tough time editing the footage of my half-brother’s funeral. It took me at least two weeks before I was able just to sit in front of the editing machine and cut the scene. Every time I looked at the footage, I couldn’t go beyond the fact that the person in the coffin happened to be my half-brother. It was like a brick wall. I kept hitting it, until one day I was able to go beyond it. I had to numb myself so that I didn’t see that person as my half-brother anymore. I just had to tell the story of the funeral. So the challenge in editing footage of myself and my family was to stay honest to the story and to put my personal objectives elsewhere.
POV: What is it like working with footage from over 20 years in the editing room?
Phrasavath: I learned a lot about time by working with all that footage. This film is about a journey through time, and through the frames you can see both personal history and world history changing. You can also see Ellen Kuras, one of the most famous cinematographers in the world, pick up a 16-millimeter camera for the first time! You can see the progression of her cinematography. For me, to have a chance to work on over 20 years of the most beautiful footage shot by the most incredible cinematographer was a dream. Sitting in the editing room and looking at this incredible footage was indescribable. I looked through different technologies, through different decades, saw myself change from a 20-year-old to a 40-year-old. It was like sitting in front of a time machine.
POV: Can you tell us more about the score for the film?
Kuras: We had the great fortune of having a brilliant composer, Howard Shore, come onto the project and compose our score. It’s very unusual for a documentary to have an Academy Award winner compose the score. Howard had seen the film in a rough cut through the good graces of Thelma Schumaucher, who is Martin Scorsese’s editor. He called me up and said, “I really would like to look at the film with you.” We looked at the film together and afterwards, he told me, “I would really like to work on the project.”
It really moved me that he wanted to participate in the making of the film. And it was quite the experience, because I had never had the opportunity to work with a composer before. As a cinematographer for dramatic films, I usually come in during the pre-production stage, then I shoot the film and then I do all the visual work at the end, but I don’t hear the music until the film is finished. So many parts of the filmmaking process happen separately. Often the key players never meet each other until the premiere.
It was great to work with a composer as open to ideas as Howard is. He wanted to learn about Lao music and Lao philosophy. He invited Thavi and me to the studio to participate, and we were there for the recording sessions. It was really an incredible experience to see him put together the different strains and different voices of the music. For both Thavi and me, it was a learning experience as well as a collaborative process. Howard definitely became our third collaborator during the making of the film.
Phrasavath: Neither of us had a very strong musical background, and we had never worked with a composer before, but it was a privilege to work with Howard, because we were able to communicate with him, and he was able to translate our emotional vision and metaphoric vision into a musical language. In his studio, he would say, “Tell me the story.” We would describe the scenes to him — what was in our heads, why we felt that way, why we had created the scene the way we had — and he would put in the musical language for what we felt. So Howard was able to bring the scenes to life and brought a new dimension to this film. He gave a soul to this film in a way.