The betrayal occurs with enough frequency and force in the film of that same name –- by one country toward another, one family member toward others, sometimes implied, more often obvious -- that viewers will soon begin to wonder which betrayal matters most. The one that starts the ball rolling is the U.S.A.’s invasion of Laos, in the process seducing some of its populace into actively working toward an American conquest of Vietnam. When that fiasco
ended in our failure, we simply abandoned the two countries to new leadership that, in both cases, severely punished those of its people who had worked with and for the Americans.
One such group was the Phrasavath family, the father of which – a military man – had to then abandon his family and run for his life. The entire family (well, almost: that’s another betrayal) eventually leaves Laos to settle in America – where it discovers yet another kind of abandonment, ongoing and every bit as betraying. Still, the major personal treachery, surprising and powerful enough to knock the wind of family and viewer alike, lies ahead.
Director Ellen Kuras and co-director Thavisouk Phrasavath (the eldest son of the family in the film, shown above, left, many years ago, and right, as he now appears) worked together on THE BETRAYAL for 23 years. Ms Kuras filmed whenever possible between her gigs as a well-known cinematographer (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Blow, Swoon, I Shot Andy Warhol) while teaching Thavi the tricks of the trade. At one point during this near-quarter-century, she had to stop work on the film for almost four years. Yet the result, for any viewer with an appreciation of history, poetry or family, is quietly astounding. One of the strongest features of the film is that, for all the betrayals along the way, large and small, the viewer never loses sight of the bigger picture: the many events at work that shape what happens to the family. Consequently blame is apportioned more justly and forgiveness is perhaps possible, if haltingly.
I make this last statement about the personal betrayals on view. The original and major betrayal of the country and people of Laos by the U.S.A. is another matter – one that most Americans will not care about or bother to acknowledge. (Or, if they do, will find some phony “reason” for justification: The “Communist Menace” demanded our involvement in Southeast Asia; we didn’t really “lose” the war in Vietnam; the Domino Theory was true; and so on.) Kuras and Phrasavath do not say this, but one might suggest that the first treachery was that of the American government toward its own people, since we had no business even being in SE Asia. But here I find it more difficult to claim that blame can be apportioned and forgiveness possible. Individuals sometimes learn from learn from their mistakes and move on. A country such as the U.S.A. – powerful and populated mostly by sheep-like followers – has not so far been able to manage this.
In any case, The Betrayal is more a personal document (from Kuras, about filmmaking; from Phrasavath, about his family) than it is any kind of standard documentary. The film combines poetry (visual, verbal) history, ideas and narrative (more than anything else, it is the story of this family) in a manner that I have never seen. Kuras has chosen her visuals with such care and understanding that their beauty quickly pulls you in, while the narrative holds you fast. And because all this takes place – and was filmed – over a span of time, its events unfold with a veracity rare in the documentary field. Things like physical aging, character development and maturation are experienced in a very different manner here. The only slightly comparable encounter might come from looking through an enormous family album while discussing all the family members on view, as -- snapshot-wise -- the years move on. Trust me, few American families will have had a story this riveting, exotic, difficult and finally profound.
The Betrayal opens for a limited run this Friday, 11/21, in New York City at the IFC Center. A Cinema Guild release, it will, one hopes, appear soon on DVD.