MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

The Betrayal

If they handed out special Oscars for patience and perseverance, Ellen Kuras would be a mortal lock for this year’s prize. Twenty-three years in the making, the veteran cinematographer’s haunting documentary, The Betrayal (Nerakhoon), has made the short list of titles being considered in the feature-length category. It also has been nominated for an Independent Spirit Award.

After serving as DP on such high-profile films asThe Mod Squad, Summer of Sam, Bamboozled, Personal Velocity: Three Portraits and Neil Young: Heart of Gold, Kuras is being recognized as a writer and director. She shares the credits with Thavisouk Phrasavath, whose family’s long journey from war-torn Laos to the gang-dominated streets of Brooklyn is chronicled in The Betrayal.

Like so many other contemporary documentaries,The Betrayal tells a story that almost defies credulity. In its depiction of perilous flight from persecution and painful relocation in a foreign land, it recalls Roland Joffee’s The Killing Fields, Oliver Stone’s Heaven & Earth, Hans Petter Moland’s The Beautiful Country and Werner Herzog’s Little Dieter Needs to Fly and Rescue Dawn, although Koras takes issue with Herzog’s portrayal of the Lao people in the generously budgeted adaptation of his own 1997 documentary. Not only did these movies shift the point of view on the war in Southeast Asia from American to Asian eyes, but they also shed light on the broken promises left behind in our haste to exit the fray.

Kuras had yet to commit to a career behind a camera – any sort of camera – when she embarked on the path that would lead, two decades later, to Academy Award consideration. When the New Jersey native entered Brown University, she intended to become an Egyptologist or social anthropologist. The idea of spending a lifetime breathing in dust from antiquity collections began to lose its luster after she picked up a still camera during an exchange class at the Rhode Island School of Design.

After graduation from Brown, she worked at the Roger Williams Park Museum, in Providence, R.I., and lived in a rundown neighborhood largely populated by refugees from Southeast Asia. Seeing their faces on a daily basis, Kuras was inspired to begin work on a photo essay. That idea followed her to the Visual Studies Workshop in Rochester, N.Y., and into New York City, where she learned how to operate Super 8 equipment.

By this time, Kuras had decided both to focus specifically on the little-known Lao community and turn the photo essay into a film. She met Phrasavath after making inquiries about people who could speak both languages.

“When Thavi called me up, he said, ‘Why do you want to learn Lao? Do you even know where Laos is?’,” recalled Kuras, who’s now 49. “Thavi has a gift for remembering family stories. After hearing how he escaped into Thailand when he was 12 years old, and how his mother and family members made it to America, I decided to tell their story.”

At the time, Phrasavath was working as a translator and intermediary between police and Laotian gangs in his drug-infested neighborhood. It wouldn’t be long before he caught the moviemaking bug himself, though. He has since edited The Betrayal and a pair of other movies.

New to the medium, Kuras would quickly learn that documentary makers often needed to find a second job if they were going to keep their refrigerators filled. She got her first big break as cinematographer of Ellen Bruno’s non-fiction Samsara: Death and Rebirth in Cambodia, in 1990. Since then she’s shot more than three dozen movies, been nominated for a pair of Emmy and three Spirit awards, and won a trio of top cinematography prizes at Sundance.

Every time she revisited the Laotian project, however, it seemed as if the story had become even more fascinating.

As if the escapes made across the Mekong River by Phrasavath, his mother and most of his siblings weren’t sufficiently compelling – or the two years the 12-year-old Thavi spent on the streets of Bangkok – there also was the incredible journey taken by the family’s patriarch from re-education “seminar” to freedom. Indeed, his role in the story is so captivating that Kuras has asked writers not to spoil the surprises for paying customers.

Mr. Phrasavath was an officer in the Royal Lao Army when he was recruited by the CIA to join other mercenaries in the effort to shut down the portion of the Ho Chi Minh Trail that led through Laos. As a “spotter,” he would radio in coordinates for the planes that ultimately would drop 3 million tons of explosives on the rural countryside. After the Americans left Vietnam and the Pathet Lao replaced the U.S.-supported monarchy, the father was marched out of the village and placed in a camp.

Thinking the senior Phrasavath dead, his wife and oldest son naturally feared for their lives. They choose to make a home in the United States, the country for whom the whole family had sacrificed. They didn’t know that the streets rumored to be paved in gold would, instead, be lined with junkies, garbage and gang-bangers (their apartment was next-door to a crack house). By comparison, even Communist Laos might have seemed like Shangri La.

“Many Americans know how the Hmung people helped the CIA in its ‘secret war’ with North Vietnam,” Kuras explained. “But hardly anyone is aware of the contributions made by the Lowland Lao, which is a separate ethnic group. Their men came home from assignments in body bags, too.”

Even if elements of the clandestine Laos campaign still remain classified by Washington, Hollywood has been spilling the beans since 1990’s Air America.

“I started researching this project in the days before the Internet,” Kuras added. “I had to go to France to learn about the CIA’s war.” That picture was an action-comedy.

The Betrayal stitches interviews together with archival footage of presidents denying our role in Laos, news clips from the war, home movies, personal memories and poetic visual impressions of the Laotian countryside. In doing so, Kuras captured some of the poetry, myths and iconography that informed the day-to-day life of the Lao, and, in effect, she created a classic melodrama.

“I wanted to employ physical metaphors and find meaning in images,” she said. “The movie had to be specific to the Phrasavath family, but not at the expense of universality. The people who fought for the CIA came here for political, not economic reasons … they want recognition for their contributions.

“I think it’s important for the general public to discover all the different layers of betrayal for themselves … how it filtered down to the bonds of family. What does it say about us that we left those people behind, just like those Iraqis who now are risking their lives to help us?”

The Betrayal is joined on the short list by these other distinguished documentaries: At the Death House Door, Blessed Is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh, Encounters at the End of the World, Fuel, The Garden, Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts, I.O.U.S.A., In a Dream, Made in America, Man on Wire, Pray the Devil Back to Hell, Standard Operating Procedure, They Killed Sister Dorothy and Trouble the Water. Of these, the early favorite is James Marsh’s Man on Wire, which revisits Philippe Petit’s spell-binding high-wire act performed between the towers of the World Trade Center in 1974.

The Betrayal, which is opening this weekend in Los Angeles, is slowly making its way across the country on the arthouse circuit. It also will be shown as part of the P.O.V.series on PBS stations.

Gary Dretzka
January 16, 2009

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

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My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon