Hot Docs Review – Betrayal (Nerakhoon)

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Betrayal (Nerakhoon)
Director – Ellen Kuras, Thavisouk Phrasavath

Hot Docs Synopsis:

During the U.S. military’s covert operations in Laos in the early 1970s, Thavisouk Phrasavath’s father was recruited to help the CIA. But when the Americans withdrew and the communist regime gained power, Phrasavath’s father and thousands of others were declared enemies of the state and imprisoned. At the age of 12, Phrasavath made a harrowing escape from Laos to Thailand and eventually to New York City, where the hardships of an immigrant’s life forced him, his eight siblings and his resilient mother to face an entirely different kind of war. The directorial debut of acclaimed cinematographer Ellen Kuras (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Neil Young: Heart of Gold), Betrayal is a lyrical film that fluidly incorporates archival footage, cinema vérité, revealing personal interviews and visually poetic montages. Beautifully filmed over the course of 23 years, it offers a stirring portrait of life in exile, of the far-reaching consequences of war and the unbreakable bonds of family.

So I pretty much went into this one blind, other than the fact that I was familiar with Ellen Kuras’ work as a cinematographer. Having said that, she sets up some pretty complex framework in this, her directorial debut. Betrayal (Nerakhoon) is a film that at first glance seems to be about a war, but actually ends up focusing on a smaller, but equally compelling, piece of pure human drama.

Kuras is probably best known for her work as a cinematographer. Her resume includes such indie hits as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Be Kind Rewind, but she’s also had some pretty heavy documentary experience. Most recently she was one of the many cinematographers involved in Martin Scorsese’s Rolling Stones flim ‘Shine a Light’, and she served as cinematographer on Jonathan Demme’s Neil Young: Heart of Gold. With all of that experience, it’s no wonder that Betrayal looks about as beautiful as any piece of dramatic fiction. Kuras chooses to avoid the cinema verite approach, instead relying on dream like imagery expressed in pastel colours and soft lighting that successfully supports the thematic heart of this film: memories. This seems pretty perfect for someone who’s worked with Michel Gondry on more than one occassion. (I guess a long lasting working career with Spike Lee doesn’t hurt either.)

The film focuses on two characters; Thavisouk Phrasavath and his Mother. (It’s worth nothing that Thavisouk received a co-director credit and was the editor of the film.) Thavisouk was just a kid when his father was recruited by the CIA to help bomb his own country. Once American forces withdrew, he was imprisoned and Laos was overrun by a powerful communist regime, sending Thavisouk, his Mother and siblings on a journey to the United States. They naively assumed that because of their Father’s involvement in the CIA, America would support them. Once they arrived in New York city, they would find themselves struggling to survive. Gang violence was steadily increasing, and life as immigrants was not easy. The whole thing sort of reminded me of a more depressing version of Jim Sheridan’s ‘In America’, only minus the E.T. obsession. Thavisouk’s Mother quite literally describes the USA as hell on Earth for her and her family. Then suddenly, Thavisouk’s missing Father re-enters the picture, bringing some momentary hope that would only be crushed by the revelation that while he was gone, he started his life all over.

There was a point in the film in which a younger, long haired Thavisouk is hanging out in a park and a subtitle pops up on the screen: Brooklyn, 1984. At this point, I experienced some minor confusion. First of all, this scene looked as equally stunning as the rest of the film, so the first thing that pops into my mind is ‘recreation’. I was amazed at how much the actor they hired truly looked like a younger Thavisouk. In one scene, he walks down a street populated with cars and people. My eyes jumped around the frame looking for modern cars, and then thought to myself ‘Wow. They actually filled the street with period automobiles’. It wasn’t until the introduction of some hi8 video footage that I started to realize that this wasn’t a re-enactment at all. It was, in fact, the real Thavisouk living in the real 1984. I was just blown away. Kuras had been following this story for over twenty years, and all of the archival footage was beautifully shot by herself. I realized all of those 80’s hairdo’s that I’d attributed to a clever on-set stylist were in fact the real deal. We were seeing Thavisouk’s memories.

The film’s title, Betrayal (Nerakhoon), is a simple yet appropriate summarization of the complexity of this story. The betrayal of one’s country, the betrayal of one’s adopted country, and most importantly, the betrayal of one’s family. I must admit the first 20 minutes had me thinking I was in for a historical docu-drama. Little did I know that this massive framework, the Laotian war, was simply the groundwork for what is likely the most touching human drama I’ll see this year.