Betrayal (Nerakhoon)

   29 April 2008, terribly early in the morning

The best film I saw at Hotdocs this year was, by far, Betrayal (Nerakhoon), by Ellen Kuras & Thavisouk Phrasavath. The film is narrated by Thavisouk, and the focus of the movie is primarily on him and his mother. The entire film is beautifully shot. Kuras is a cinematographer by trade, so this is probably to be expected. This film is her directorial debut. There is so much going on in this film, it was incredible.

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.

On one level the film is really about just how big an impact the bombs the US dropped on Laos have had on the Laotian people. The first portion of the film will most certainly fill you with some ‘Fuck America’ rage. The footage of the bombs being dropped over Laos is both amazing and beautiful, and horrible and disgusting, all at the same time.

And then the story moves forward and you find yourself watching a movie about the immigrant experience. I knew the film was going to be awesome when we are shown a scene of a younger Thavisouk showing off his long hair and tattoos. Text on the screen informs us we’re watching footage from Brooklyn, 1985. Kuras looks to have been following this family’s life for over 20 years! I can only imagine how much film they had to wade through to make the movie they ended up with. The narrative they’ve managed to put together works so well. The movie covers a lot of ground, but never feels disjoint. Thavisouk seems to find his bearings in the US, but his brothers and sisters end up rebelling quite hard. At my high school you saw this exact same thing play out with the Tamil kids who escaped the civil war in Sri Lanka. I think this is a very common experience. The fact that Kuras has all this footage of the family’s first years in the US is what really makes this portion of the film work so well.

I don’t think I’ve been at a film where you can hear so many people crying. It’s a bit unsettling when you can hear grown-ass men sniffling behind you. Betrayal was a brilliant film.

Betrayal was the 7th film I watched at Hotdocs 2008.

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