Ellen Kuras started filming Thavisouk Phrasavath and his family in 1984, when Thavi was 21, shortly after they fled Laos and landed in Flatbush. For 23 years, she followed the family through a long exile, joyful reunions, and painful separations. The result, The Betrayal, is a moving documentary about refugee life in America. The title refers not only to what Thavisouk’s soldier father suffered when the U.S. military pulled out of Laos in the seventies but also to the more intimate, personal betrayals that followed. Kuras talked to Dan Kois.
Since you began The Betrayal, you’ve become an in-demand director of photography, shooting films for Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) and Spike Lee (Summer of Sam), among others. Is that why it took so long to finish this movie?
I shot a lot of the material in the late eighties and nineties, but there were three or four years where I didn’t work on the film because I was doing features back-to-back. When I was in between movies, I would spend a week here or there with Thavi’s family.
The movie alternates between lushly shot, lyrical passages and gritty cinéma vérité.
I was writing a lot of poetry at the beginning of the film. I was much more interested in making a meditation of a particular worldview. But then I became so involved with the family, and I just couldn’t help but put the camera on what was happening around me, being the silent witness to this family drama unfolding.
The whole family suffered repercussions from the father’s involvement with our military. Do you see a similarity with the situation in Iraq?
One of the reasons I finally said “Okay, now is the time to get this film done” is because of what’s happening overseas. I kept hearing stories in the news about Iraqis getting killed because of their affiliations with the Americans. And I just thought, This is the same story.
Thavi is credited as your co-director.
I wanted to enable the Laos to have their own voice in the world, and to talk about their stories themselves. The family just saw it as our project together. There was a level of trust there that is not normal for a filmmaker who’s only around for six months.
Thavi even wound up editing the movie.
And when I couldn’t be there, he actually took the camera. There was one particular crucial moment in his family—I don’t want to spoil it here—that he wasn’t comfortable having anybody else doing, so he filmed it himself.
Are you going to keep following the Phrasavaths?
It’s time for Thavi to start telling those stories. He’s become a filmmaker. And I think that’s the next step in that particular story, and that’s where The Betrayal, the sequel, will come from.
Cinema Guild, Opens at IFC Center November 21