Exclusive: Flavorwire Chats with Ellen Kuras and Thavisouk of The Betrayal

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[Editor’s note: This interview originally ran when The Betrayal was released in late November. We’re re-posting it to honor the fact that it has been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. Best of luck to Ellen!]

Thirty odd years have passed since America’s Ford-ordered withdrawal, but the Vietnam War and its ruinous effects on the region continue to resound across the Pacific. Back in those heady days, the war-tired public dwelt on king-pawn Vietnam while Washington backed up its domino theory with a clandestine campaign in neighboring Laos — a bomb-them-back-to-the-Stone-Age operation that haunts U.S. history like Banquo’s ghost.

In her directorial debut The Betrayal (Nerakhoon), famed cinematographer Ellen Kuras takes on these long-hushed spirits with a mystical and lyrical documentary about the indomitable Phrasavaths, a large Laotian family forced to flee their home and resettle on Brooklyn’s mean streets after America’s embarrassing, premature ejection from Southeast Asia. Shot over 23 years, the film features a close collaboration with the family’s eldest son, Thavisouk (or Thavi); Kuras dicovered the movie’s raison d’être-cum-co-director when seeking Lao language lessons for a since-scrapped project in 1984.

The Betrayal begins and ends with the narrating Thavi, who we see mature from a young, pony-tailed immigrant struggling to survive to an older, Buddha-like Laotian-American activist trying to piece together his lost past. Thavi’s “poetic memoir” (as Kuras christens the obstacle-beset, but hopeful odyssey) shifts easily between time periods, film stocks, and ocean-split countries and cultures to recount the real domino effect of war, each domino marked by a pained human face or numbers like, say, 8 or 9 to represent how Laos was bombed every eight minutes for nine years.

From claustrophobic scenes in ’80s Brooklyn to splintered tracking shots of verdant present-day Laos, Kuras’ camera achieves a home-movie intimacy in its inquiry into war-spawned suffering. The interviews are necessarily uncomfortable in their one-take honesty, but the film comes across like a transparent mosaic — an artistic monument that it is as poignant and powerful to those with an insider perspective as those studying it from afar.

Belwo, Flavorwire sits down with Ellen and Thavi for a behind-the-scenes chat about the film.

Flavorwire: François Truffaut once said, “the film of tomorrow will be an act of love. The film of tomorrow will not be directed by civil servants of the camera, but by artists for whom shooting a film constitutes a wonderful and thrilling adventure.” He could be describing The Betrayal and its distillation of 23 years into 96 minutes of film. When did you realize what you had achieved?

Thavi Phrasavath: We first came to realize it at the Sundance Lab, when we first saw the rough assembly. That’s the first moment that we realized that, wow, it is a movie. It really hit me personally to realize the history of family, the history of filmmaking, the history of the friendship between me and Ellen — it’s the product of our relationship over 23 years. It’s almost like going back and reading the book that, after we wrote the first page, we never went back to read. I remember when I went downstairs to the editing room and I came back and saw that Ellen was crying. I thought, “She probably hates that scene.” She just gave me a hug and said, “I think we got it.”

Ellen Kuras: Well, as one says, a film is never done, it is only taken away from you. I keep on seeing different ways of putting something together. I mean that is part of the creative process of always being able to reshape. Look at how many painters have destroyed their paintings or painted over it twenty times. But I think the first time was when we showed it as a rough cut at Sundance. It was at that moment that people really responded to the film. We walked out expecting, you know, people not understanding the film; on the contrary, they were all blown away.

FW: Some of the numbers you present about America’s secret war in Laos are absolutely staggering — like the fact that more tons of bombs were dropped on uninvolved Laos than in both World Wars combined. Was there anything you wanted to include but didn’t?

EK: There was still a significant amount of gang material that we didn’t put in that was riveting. But because it didn’t directly link to Thavi’s family and what was happening with the family drama, we decided that we couldn’t put it in. Also, Thavi’s first interview ever. The first time I interviewed him was when he could hardly speak English and he was sitting in his room — the room he shared with 6 other brothers and sisters, with 3 beds pushed together in a living room in this Brooklyn apartment with a whole background that was spray painted with street graffiti. And Thavi, who was 22 and had been in America for only 3 years, said with this big innocent smile, “I thought that America was going to be all white people and the streets were going to be clean.” [laughs] Yeah, there were certainly tons and tons of beautiful images that, as a cinematographer, I thought, “Oh my gosh is anyone going to ever see these?” But that’s the way it goes on film, you got to make your selections.

TP: We captured a lot of different other elements that gave a lot of information about how we struggled. But any first generation, they have to go through the same process. This film isn’t about regret or whining, it’s about accomplishment, it’s about accepting, it’s about going beyond obstacles, because we wanted to bring lots of hope. Ninety-six minutes is 96 minutes.

EK: Well, there is one story that I regret leaving out. There is a story that Thavi told that still haunts me. He said that during the time of the [Communist] Pathet Lao, when they had closed the country down and there were a lot of people being killed especially the Hmong, he went out fishing with his grandfather and, in the blue mist, they saw something floating in the water. So his grandfather paddled over to see what it was and they saw a whole family floating, dead in the water and tied together, these Hmong people floating down the river. I always wanted to put that in the film, because then, when Thavi actually gets in the water to go swim across the river [to Thailand], people would have that in their mind to know what the horror was of trying to escape.

FW: Were there any films, directors, or artists that influenced the film’s lyricism or look?

TP: The film that really inspired me, being an editor, was…[laughs]

EK: [smiling]Let me guess. [Ron Fricke’s] Baraka!

TP: [laughs] I have a few films that really inspired me. Baraka, of course. It is one of the rare, rare films that the picture speaks more than a thousand words. No narration, it’s the most universal film that I’ve seen. It’s about humanity. It’s about art. It’s about beauty. It’s about suffering. It’s about accomplishment. It’s about nature. It’s about conflict. And with no words. It’s beyond words. It’s the most beautiful film I’ve ever seen, the most hopeful and also the most mind-boggling kind of film. It leads you to ask a lot of questions.

Another film that really inspired me is [Christopher Nolan’s] Memento. How everything works in reverse. To me, that is a work of genius in film editing. It allows you to go off in completely different tangents and to find a way back to where it begins.

EK: I think I am very influenced by Terrence Malick. He’s really an amazing filmmaker.

FW: What’s up next, Thavi? Ellen, you’ve come full circle with The Betrayal after getting your jump-start with Samsara, which was about post-Pol Pot Cambodia. Do you want to continue directing films?

TP: For me, making this film, I had a chance to learn from all the great masters — Ellen, the great editors who came in, everybody. I learned so much. They’re all my greatest teachers. Because of that, I feel privileged — now that I’ve become a filmmaker — to serve my community better. I definitely feel there’s more stories from my community that we need to share and need to be addressed and talked about. And now, I’ll be able to do more films for my community and the world community.

EK: I’m certainly not going to give up my career as a director of photography to say, “Okay, I’m just going to go direct.” I see myself as a filmmaker in the best of circumstances who has a great opportunity to work with incredible directors like Marty Scorsese, who I’m doing a project with now, or shooting for Terrence Malick last week. In terms of directing, I most certainly will continue to make films. They won’t be conventional films I don’t think because that’s not where I come from. And I’m sure they’re not going to take 23 years. One thing about the 23 years, though, when you believe in something, 23 years is nothing.