From Laos to Brooklyn: Ellen Kuras and Thavisouk Phrasavath in conversation with Williams Cole
Ellen Kuras is highly regarded as the innovative cinematographer responsible for films from Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam and Bamboozled to Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Be Kind: Rewind. The Betrayal (Nerakhoon) is her directorial debut, a documentary she filmed over 23 years in an amazing collaboration with Thavisouk Phrasavath (Thavi), the film’s subject and its co-director. The Betrayal (Nerakhoon) is an epic documentary infused with an artistic cinematographer’s eye that tells the story of Thavi and his family on their journey from their home in Laos after the turmoil resulting from the U.S. military involvement in that country during the Vietnam War era. The story centers around how, when relocated to Brooklyn, Thavi and his family endure a series of painful transitions that include finding and then losing all over again the father of the family. It’s the rare film that presents an overarching view of the long-term consequences of war on a family, as well as the different kind of war that besets dislocated families that come to a new country. I sat down with both Kuras and co-director/subject Thavi soon before the New York premiere of the film.
Williams Cole (Rail): This film was made over decades. Tell us how it started.
Ellen Kuras: Well, I had this idea about making a film about the Lao soon after I left Brown University where I had known a lot of Southeast Asians living in my neighborhood. I again ran into Laotians living in Rochester after that and I thought, wow, this is a really interesting phenomenon that all of these people are living all over the States. I was interested in the Laotians in particular because we as Americans had fought a secret air war in Laos—the Vietnam War actually began in Laos, one could say—and to this day the United States government still has not admitted that we fought a war there even though it might be one of the most heavily bombed countries on earth. I was living in New York and I put the word out to this small Lao community in Brooklyn, near Flatbush Avenue and Church Avenue, that I wanted to learn how to speak Lao, and one day Thavi called me and he said "Who are you? And why the hell would you want to learn how to speak Lao? Most people don’t even know where Laos is!" But, sure enough, that week he came to my apartment and the moment I opened up the door we became friends and started a long dialogue which continues to this day. In effect the film has become part of our dialogue and it was part of our discussions in talking about life and culture and philosophy and mythology. That’s what the film was for us in many respects. And people ask us "Well, did you expect it was going to take 23 years?" And the answer is no. But we didn’t have a deadline, although we wanted to finish the film. But so much was about the process of making the film and we enjoyed that.
Thavisouk Phrasavath (Thavi): We became friends and then family and that’s how we started our deep collaboration. Our collaboration is spiritual and profound in the sense of how a film like this is made and completed—it symbolizes that Ellen and I come from two extremely different worlds more or less, and yet through our collaboration we both taught each other. Ellen is really the person who gives me the true view of what America is and I do the same thing for her about what the Lao are. Through this relationship we collide and see each other’s situation. It was two years after I got to America when I was 21 that I got that call from Ellen and I’ll never forget that. It seems like yesterday. I can hardly believe I met Ellen when I was a young man and Ellen was a young lady and now we are towards 50.
Rail: I think one of the important renderings of the film—partly because it was filmed over so many years—is the intimate experience as a refugee with expectations of America and how they change. Can you talk about that a little bit?
Thavi: We were very naïve based on what we were taught about America in Laos. We hardly ever saw a white man around and a black man, forget it, you’d never see one. I never believed that America was the land that was a mixture of all different races, I thought America was pure white. I had no clue until I got here. When we arrived in Brooklyn for the first time—and I said this in the film—we felt like we got on the wrong plane and landed in Africa! That mixture of people is the greatest and most wonderful part of the experience, but it takes some time to realize it and appreciate it. When we first got here all we worried about was what we were going to eat and how we going to survive and not get killed—not get run over by a car or hit with empty bottles or a baseball bat or whatever. But then we come to realize that that’s what America is. It’s all about the beautiful mixtures that complete its very own color.
Rail: But there are some pretty poignant parts of the film that comment on the immigrant refugee’s experience in a new land. I’m thinking of Thavi’s mother and how things crumble around her as she sees her children pulled in all these different ways.
Kuras: Thavi’s mother to me represents a more tragic figure, a mother of war, the wife of a soldier at war, who has experienced extreme tragedy. And her tragedy’s not resolved. She never saw the two children she left in Laos again. But I had never envisioned this film as a refugee film per se, nor Thavi as a refugee. I was interested in how someone lives in exile and what happens to people when they lose their connection to their homeland and their spiritual core. To me that was much more universal in terms of what happens to people all over the world who are moving around and who are leaving the place of their origin, the place of themselves where they derive their identity. So, in a way, Thavi and his mother play off each other really well in terms of being able to show different sides of a similar experience.
Rail: That’s very true. A lot of the time the complexities and pressures that people coming to a new place have to endure are often glossed over in the mythologies of the American Dream.
Kuras: For me, I realized only recently that one of the reasons I was also connected to this story personally was that my own grandparents came over from Eastern Europe before the First World War seeking the American Dream just like everyone else, and they didn’t find it. I mean they lived in abject poverty, and cut off their ties to the old country because they didn’t want to show that they hadn’t made it. But my grandfather was always unhappy and always wanted to go back to his old country. And that extreme sense of alienation and isolation always was a part of our family, and I thought about it a lot in terms of what happens to people without land, without their land under their feet. Wars are fought over a piece of land, for the most part, and territory, whether it’s religious territory or the actual physical earth. If you really look at the world today that’s what defines our world. Whether it’s oil or the land under your feet, it’s about taking your hand and picking up that dirt and saying “I’m from here.”
Rail: What about you, Thavi? Did you feel that sense of isolation and alienation when you first came here?
Thavi: In terms of alienation, I began to experience that early on, even before I arrived in the United States. When I first escaped from Laos to Thailand, we shared the same culture and religion, the same color, race, but I never understood at all why the Thai had such a strong prejudice against me just for being Laotian. Even they themselves recognize we came from the same culture and almost the same country. So to be treated badly and called names, you know, it’s even more hurtful then when someone calls me ‘chink’ in America because I could pass for Chinese. That’s more understandable. I always felt that since I left the womb of that country I was always going to be alienated in the world because I would never be able to go back and find a place where I can find home again, or call home, or be comfortable with a place you can call home. So when I got to Thailand I had the experience of prejudice, not racism—because we are of the same race—but when I came to America I experienced both that prejudice and racism. But we as humans really learn to adapt very fast and find a way to be accepted into a community. That’s why, right after you figure out where we are going to find food and how we are going to live in a neighborhood, we begin to bond as a group because unity does keep us strong in a strange land and a strange country. I love America. I don’t feel as alienated as I used to be because I accept the fact that whatever had happened in my life, there’s nothing I can change, cannot go back in time and change. I know when I left that womb it would never be the way that I could find the way back ever again, and I accept that. I realized that very strongly when I first went back to Laos with Ellen to shoot the film in 1994, when my own people, in my own hometown, called me a foreigner. And then in America they tell me to go home. That’s alienated! [Laughs.]
Kuras: That was pretty wild. All of the years that Thavi had talked about going back, going home, but when we got to Laos, that first night, when we went out to walk in the market, a guy says to Thavi “So where are you from?” And he says, “Well I’m from here, this is my home,” and he says, “No, no, no, you’re not from here, you talk funny.” And Thavi is like, “No, no, no I was born here.” And the guy’s like “No, no, you’re not from here.” And I remember how utterly devastated you were.
Thavi: Yeah, I was pretty devastated. But then I realized that when I’m here if people tell me to go back to my country, at least I know where I came from. I can go back there. If I tell a lot of people in America to go home, do they know where they are supposed to go? They’d have to go back track at least five generations right? But, since I’m first generation, I automatically know I can always go back to Laos and feel accepted even when I get called as a foreigner in my own home. But that little moment of devastation was the first moment I realized that in my life I was given a new opportunity to understand something larger than just what I’m hanging on to. I realized that I’m no longer a citizen of any country but I’m a citizen of the world. Because of that devastation, it allowed me to go beyond that limitation that I set for myself. I realized, hey, this is a wonderful experience.
Rail: What about the title of the film? Why did you decide to name it The Betrayal?
Kuras: For us, the film is so clearly about betrayal, and we decided not to say the betrayal in plural, because we wanted the audience to discover the other betrayals. We set out with the betrayal of the United States to the Lao people, and we really wanted people to discover that for themselves as they go through the film. It’s really amazing because they do. And they have this sense of wonderment and discovery, that there’s not just one betrayal, it’s so many betrayals, so many different layers in the family. So I’d ask you, what was your reaction?
Rail: Well, I think it’s on the larger level and the smaller, the macro and the micro. I mean, everything from the American government leaving the country but not admitting its involvement in carpet bombing, to Thavi’s father leaving the family even after he found them, and in between, maybe the problematic nature of the American Dream. What kind of contemporary lessons do you think this film gives for foreign policy and people coming to America?
Kuras: I think the film really shows what happens to the people that we hired to fight our wars for us on their native soil, which is exactly what we are doing in Iraq, and what’s going to happen to those people because of their affiliations with America. In Thavi’s family the war has never really ended and it won’t, for those people it won’t end as well. For me that is the most obvious kind of message in terms of it being a more or less anti-war film. It shows the deep-seated reverberations of war and betrayal that occur, and how it unties the bond of family, and shakes the very core of the family. What is going to happen over there after we pull out? The same thing as in Laos. When we left Laos, even people like Thavi’s father, who was a major commander, didn’t know. They just assumed that the Americans left because suddenly they didn’t see them around anymore. Imagine that. And all of a sudden you’re in the hands of the enemy. I would add the importance of recognizing the Laotians’ participation. Even commanders like Thavi’s father who had fought in the war, who are now here, are not seen as veterans of the war, even though they are. So there’s this whole thing about recognizing the war and whether that is a political agenda on the part of the United States government. Because the moment that they recognize that we fought a war there and that these people were our soldiers, then are they eligible for veteran’s benefits? How far down the line does it filter?
Thavi: I think that whoever our government is, including president-elect Obama, I hope he realizes that when you decide to stop a war, you have to take additional time. They have to be prepared for more than just a ceasefire. It is still a greater responsibility beyond the war itself.
Cole: What do you hope people take away from this film?
Kuras: I think that what a lot of people don’t realize about this film is that what appears to be a political documentary ends up being a really intense family drama, and I think that it's important for people to take away from it some sort of connection to their own family, which we’ve witnessed time and time again with audiences that have seen the film around the world. We all have families, and we all can relate in some aspect to what happens in families when they break apart and then come back together again, or vice versa.
Thavi: I hope that the film can be used in our society to show that for whatever reason people come here to America—whether new immigrants or because of war, or because you are in exile or you come here for whatever political or economic reason that we, as Americans, have always had some experience that causes us to leave our homeland. We all came here for a reason, whatever that reason might be. I want people who see this film that feel alienated to not feel alone anymore because they might be going through the same experience as we did but couldn’t talk about it. Hopefully, the American public would understand us as a community after watching this film, that we should have more heart and soul before judging our friends and neighbors who look different than we are instead of just profiling, to take a little moment to ask, “Why are they here? What was the trouble in the other part of the world before they came here?”