Tom RostonIndependent journalist Tom Roston checks in and writes about the world of documentaries in his column, Doc Soup.

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Doc Soup: Subject as Collaborator in “The Betrayal”

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What if Robert Flaherty had given the Inuit named Allakariallak a credit as co-director of Nanook of the North? Or if Davis Guggenheim shared the bill with Al Gore on An Inconvenient Truth? Would those films be regarded in a different light? We know that the collaboration between documentary filmmakers and their subjects is what makes most great docs so great. How much of the quality of Grey Gardens is due to Big and Little Edie‘s active participation in the telling of their lives?

Ellen KurasThavisouk Phrasavath

Ellen Kuras and Thavisouk Phrasavath

Of course, there’s a great value to maintaining the line between director and subject, but Ellen Kuras is one of the few filmmakers who decided to cross that line with her doc, The Betrayal, which airs this week on POV. Her co-director on the film, Thavisouk Phrasavath, is also its main subject.

This unusual arrangement is partly due to the unusual amount of time Kuras spent working with Phrasavath on the film — more than 20 years. As Phrasavath said to me, “This is no longer a film. This is our child.”

Kuras is also just a naturally collaborative person. Having been a director of photography for so many years,; she knows how to work on teams with some of the best feature directors in the business. And The Betrayal has also helped launch Phrasavath into a budding film career of his own. The last time I spoke with him, he was working on directing two films.

But I think there’s something more to this collaboration than all of the reasons above. It’s a clear sign to audiences that this film is not just about a man and his family. It’s about something more: his ideas, how he sees the world, and how his ideas and views flow from his cultural background.

Kuras once told me, “The truth is relative: Who tells the story determines what the truth is.” The story of The Betrayal is clearly being told — you can see it in the credits — by two people.
I can’t even think of another example of this sort of credit sharing with a subject. If you can, I’d love to hear about it.

Tom Roston
Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He comes to us as a ten-year veteran of Premiere magazine, where he was a Senior Editor, and where he wrote the column, Notes from the Dream Factory. Tom was born and raised in New York City. He graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom has also written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, GQ, New York, Elle and other publications. Tom's favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi - Godfrey Reggio 2. Hoop Dreams - Steve James 3. The Up series - Michael Apted 4. Crumb - Terry Zwigoff 5. Capturing the Friedmans - Andrew Jarecki
  • Nixk,p

    FOREIGNID: 19292
    I, myself, was very impressed with this documentary my Ms. Ellen Kuras and of cause Mr. Thavisouk Phrasavath. This is just one of the opening opportunities for the world to know the history of our exiting in third world country. People should knows especially to the younger generations that born in the US or anywhere else. They need to know their root/tradition/religion. Without these three basic principals they will be lost in their own domain. But the history should never repeat itself. Knows that your ancestors have paved the ways for your existents among the world only place…in the United State. Without payment from our ancestors we wouldn’t be here.
    La Khon

  • Helen Gonzales

    FOREIGNID: 19351
    For me, this story was about T. Phrasavath’s MOTHER and the way her profound sadness affected her household. She was burdened by her children in the absence of her husband and found it difficult to balance her own spiritual wellbeing with the emotional needs of her family. She sacrificed her self for the choice her husband made and was left holding the bag. She and her children are grave casualties of war and I empathize with her difficulty to move past her losses. The story is felt in her silence and tears and I did find the camera too invasive and indiscrete in these highly charged moments, watching her pain and powerlessness under the weight of a life she would not have consciously chosen. It was as if the camera victimized her even more putting her pain on display.

  • Ed St.George

    FOREIGNID: 19354
    This documentary sheds light on a core issue we all must face. There is a struggle to survive no matter where we live, and no one should feel that any country is better than another! I was born in America, I come in close contact with Asian people who are not citizens in the U.S but, are wonderful human beings. So called “democratic countries” have tried to interfere in places like; Vietnam, Korea, but they do not always make life better for those citizens. We should learn from this since similar “betrayal’s” will occur now in Iraq & Afghanastan.

  • ge ce hoyce

    FOREIGNID: 19375
    I found this documentary most informative. I have “LOST-Sad adult Cambobian neighbors struggling with Ptsd disorder really and I caLL THEM TO VIEW THESE aSIAN REFUGEE FILMS WHICH
    In my city boston I saw two such youths end up in jails numerous times while in the same street three immigrant girls went on to IVY league colleges and careers in business and law practices so opportunity for these folk seems very futile indeed..another young man ( cambodian) went home with $25,000loan to buy farm land there and was embezzled if the entire amount.Now he faces forclosure and ruin here not to mention his ahame and sense of failure.
    Keep up these most beneficial documentaries !They are treasure troves of true facts.

  • kent pearson

    FOREIGNID: 19399
    I was totally dumbfounded by the absolute truth the documentary portrayed. I am 52 years old and never did do any time in the military but the show really opened my eyes. I cried on 3 different parts of the documentary, that is something that I just do not do. during the documentary-during the escape from lao I had to pull up google earth and follow the distance of the escape and only then did I realize just how far and hard a struggle that must have been.
    I feel the documentary should have shown the audience the distances traveled-these people from lao took a lot on their shoulders.
    I doubt very seriously if I could have survived in new york and I am from america!!!!!
    thank you very much for enriching my life with love and compassion by the documentary. It really has changed my life!!
    kent pearson
    houston texas

  • Jennifer

    I am sorry this is a very belated response to this interesting post, but I have made a couple of feature docs where authorial credit has been shared with the main protagonist, and I think there are more examples out there.
    The first was a collaboration between Vicky Funari, myself and Paulina Cruz Suarez, a feature called “Paulina” that premiered at Sundance in 1998.
    I also co-directed and co-produced “Special Circumstances,” which aired on PBS in the Voces series a couple of years ago.  That was with director/producer Marianne Teleki and her husband Hector Salgado, who was also the main character.While the collaborative model is not my only preferred means of working, I’m doing it yet again in a web-based project for Latino Public Broadcasting and the CPB American Graduate initiative. It will be coming out in September on
    The collaborative arena is indeed fascinating documentary territory.

    Cheers, Jennifer Maytorena Taylor (“New Muslim Cool”)