Ellen Kuras and Thavisouk Phrasavath’s debut film, “The Betrayal” (Nerakhoon), tells the story of a family’s epic journey from war-torn Laos to the streets of New York. Filmed over the course of 23 years, “The Betrayal” movingly chronicles the family’s struggle to reckon with that which was left behind while forging a new and difficult life in a foreign land. Thavisouk gives a first-hand account of his own boyhood survival of war, his later escape from persecution and arrest in Laos, his miraculous reunion with his family and their journey to America, and the second war they had to fight on the streets of New York City. Thavisouk’s mother also gives powerful testimony of her unflagging efforts to single-handedly raise and shepherd a family of ten amidst almost constant danger. As its involvement in the Vietnam War deepened and conflict spilled into the surrounding territories, the United States clandestinely operated within Laotian borders. By 1973, 3 million tons of bombs were dropped on Laos in the fight to overcome the North Vietnamese; more than were used during WWI and WWII combined. A former commander in the Royal Army, Thavisouk’s father is recruited (alongside thousands of his countrymen) by the CIA, and works intelligence along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. When the United States withdraws from Laos and the Communist Pathet Lao gains power, Thavi’s father is declared an enemy of the state and sent to a hard labor re-education camp – putting Thavi and his family in mortal danger. Repeatedly arrested because of his father’s US affiliation, 12-year-old Thavi makes a life-changing decision to leave his family and Laos behind, swimming across the Mekong River on two inflated plastic bags to a refugee camp in Thailand. Reunited with his mother and siblings two years later, the family flees to the United States in 1981, his father presumed gone forever. Hoping to find safety and redemption in a country whose ideals had attracted their father to service, the family’s optimism evaporates after their American sponsors deposit them in single cramped room in a crowded tenement building – right next door to a volatile crack house in Brooklyn, New York. Disoriented by the western culture and desperate to survive, Thavisouk and his mother try to imprint their eastern cultural values onto the younger children before the family disintegrates completely. Robbed of his own childhood, Thavisouk struggles to reconcile his dual role as head of the household and older brother. He journeys through the rest of the film trying to reunite his lost family and regain a sense of peace and harmony in a world marked by borders and chaos.
In “The Betrayal” (Nerakhoon), Kuras and Phrasavath have created a lyrical film that fluidly incorporates archival footage, cinema verite, interview material and visually poetic montages. The result is a story of what it means to be in exile, of the far-reaching consequences of war, and of the resilient bonds of family. Thavisouk’s unforgettable journey reminds us of the strength necessary to survive unthinkable conditions, and of the human spirit’s inspiring capacity to adapt, rebuild, and forgive.
Ellen Kuras ASC (born July 10, 1959 in New Jersey) is an American cinematographer and director. She has collaborated several times with directors Michel Gondry and Spike Lee. —Wikipedia
Teared up during my first viewing of this film. Shot over what is, I believe a 10 year period, this film gives the viewer the Laotian perspective on the Vietnam war and tells the tale of Laos' devoted participation alongside American forces in the Vietnam war. This film is worth multiple watches.