Looking for a Laotian tutor, Ellen Kuras found a friend and an epic story, one that she could not have planned. That story, the documentary The Betrayal (Nerakhoon), must have been hard to make sense of at first, not knowing how it would unfold over the decades, but Kuras has made it a cohesive bittersweet tale.
This is not the the 1983 Jeremy Irons movie, Betrayal, based on the late Harold Pinter's play about Pinter's real life love affair. This documentary is a more devastating and universal tale about immigration.
The Laotian tutor was Thavisouk Phrasavath, the eldest son of a family whose American dream turned out to be a nightmare of sorts, one that stretches out over two decades.
"A time will come when the universe will break, piece by piece and the world will change beyond what we know," is a Laotian saying. In the beginning, Thavi's father, a former officer in the Laotian army, is recruited by the CIA during the Vietnam War and became part of the United States covert operations in Laos. When the American forces evacuated from Laos and Vietnam, Thavi's father, like many former allies, became the enemy. With his father sent to a communist re-education camp, the 12-year-old Thavi was harassed and arrested because of his father's political status. Fearing for his life, Thavi escaped by swimming across the Mekong River to a refugee camp in Thailand.
Two years later, his mother and siblings follow. Then in 1981, with no word from his father, Thavi, his mother and siblings, immigrate to the United States. Yet there, they find their sponsors leave them in a Brooklyn slum next to a crack house.
Four years later, in 1985, Thavi meets Kuras and she soon begins filming this story about hope, hardship and betrayal, when cultural values clash and a happy ending seems unimaginable, even when the unimaginable comes true.
As one would expect from a cinematographer, Kuras supplies beautiful imagery--pastoral scenes from Asia and grittier scenes in the U.S., in some ways transforming our ideas of the war-torn country of Laos with the land of plenty America.
Sometimes we fall into important things when we are looking for something else. In the case of Kuras, one is sure she had no idea how the story would develop or end 23 years ago, but this story, slow in developing and followed up through friendship and cultural respect is one worth telling.
In English and Laotian, this documentary is nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary and was nominated for the grand jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival.