The Betrayal (Nerakhoon)
During the Viet Nam War, American forces entered Laos, a neutral country between Thailand, Cambodia and Viet Nam. The country was seen as strategically critical because the Ho Chi Minh trail ran right through it; and the Laotians were armed and trained by the U.S. to “save the country from itself.” But when the U.S. retreated from Laos and the royalist government was overthrown by pro-communist Pathet Lao, those who had fought with U.S. forces were treated as traitors and suffered imprisonment and even execution. Many families fled the country in fear. Among them was co-writer/director Thavisouk “Thavi” Phrasavath’s family. The Betrayal is a documentary recollection of their extraordinary journey.
The film tells its story with a deceptively simple and delicate balance of narrative footage, newsreels and interviews, all cut together into what feels like a furious whisper. Howard Shore’s evocative violin score sets the atmosphere as Thavi’s narration attempts to explain the exigent cultural, political, and geographical circumstances that slowly tore his family apart.
Director and cinematographer Ellen Kuras, along with Thavi, shot The Betrayal over a 20-year period. The breadth of Kuras’s footage acts as a wholly unique and impressive cinematic experience. We are given the rare opportunity to actually travel the timeline of Thavi’s journey as it was occurring. Some rare and spectacular moments are captured, and because Kuras was so embedded in Thavi’s familial world, the footage feels profoundly intimate, almost ethereal.
The Betrayal contains many fascinating ruminations on cultural symmetry and identity. When Thavi’s family arrived in America, he explains that upon seeing the New York slums and their diverse ethnic inhabitants, they worried that they had gotten off on the wrong continent. In essence, they had traded a warring country for warring neighborhoods. Instead of being forced into reeducation camps by the new communist government that had branded them traitors, Thavi’s siblings had to fend off gang violence and rampant poverty. The family was placed in a crack house in Brooklyn. They spoke no English and had insufficient food stamps. (Thavi would fish in Prospect Park before police ran him off.) One of the more heartbreaking elements of The Betrayal is hearing Thavi’s emotionally shattered mother recall her struggle to get her children to American and her devastation as the country turned out not to be the promised land she had dreamed of for her family.
Yet, The Betrayal is not a finger-pointing admonishment of America’s “betrayal,” nor is it an example of hopelessness. Kuras and Thavi’s film, even in its most devastating moments, is a work rich with hope and humanity. The film is a survivalist poem about those caught in the wake of war, relevant and heartbreakingly beautiful.
The video presentation for The Betrayal is somewhat difficult to judge, as the source is comprised of so many different elements. The DVD is presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, but the film was shot using 16mm and Super8 cameras, and then intercut with newsreel footage that has seen better days. So, technically, the original source is 1.33:1 that was matted for 1.85:1 for the film’s theatrical release and then slightly opened up to 1.78:1 for DVD. Got all that? Good.
Instead of attempting to assess an impossible image, I’ll just report that, for what it is, The Betrayal looks pretty damn good. My only real complaint is that while cinematography is striking, the palette often looks flat and/or washed-out.
Presented in Dolby Digital 5.1, The Betrayal sounds very good for a documentary feature with so many audio sources. The film is, of course, front heavy with an emphasis on dialogue. However, Howard Shore’s score resonates beautifully and the surrounds are often factored in during outdoor scenes.
Commentary by director Ellen Kuras and executive producer Cara Mertes:
An informative commentary by two very engaged and passionate filmmakers. The commentary is constructed like an interview, with Mertes posing obviously scripted questions to Kuras. While Kuras’ answers are always informative, the format felt a bit flat. I appreciate how in-depth the “conversation” is, though. Kuras discusses everything from the project’s inception to being nominated for an Academy Award.
Q&A Interview with director Ellen Kuras and co-director Thavisouk Phrasavath (30min):
A great set of follow-up interviews with Kuras and Thavi. They discuss the timeline of the shoot, their initial meeting, the process of shooting the film, their relationship as filmmaker and subject, etc. A solid and informative feature.
Conversation with director Ellen Kuras and composer Howard Shore (12min):
Howard Shore discusses his process with Kuras, including how the two came to work together and how he approached scoring The Betrayal. I’ve spent quite a bit of time listening to Shore having watched all 900 Lord of the Rings special features discs. His interviews are always worth a look.
Strangely, this interview is presented in non-anamorphic letterbox.
Archival footage and selected newsreels (11min):
Very interesting archival footage of Laotian culture, as well as U.S. propaganda films and newsreels.
Additional montage footage of Laos (4min):
Additional footage from Laos that was not used in the film’s many montage sequences. These images are presented in their original un-matted full screen.
Excerpts of Thavisouk’s first interview (4min):
This is the first interview that Thavi and Kuras filmed as they were beginning the long shoot.
Thavisouk returns to Laos (7min):
Images of Thavi’s return to Laos accompanied by Shore’s music.
Omitted scene: Thavi pays respects by becoming a novice monk for two days (5min):
Thavi joins a monastery for two days. That’s pretty much it.
A standard listing of biographical information on the filmmakers.
Theatrical trailer (2min):
The theatrical trailer is presented in anamorphic widescreen.
Photographs of the 20+ year shoot, including several candid behind-the-scenes photos of Ellen Kuras.
[Click images for full resolution captures]