Leaving the Land of a Million Elephants
Obscured by warring, invading neighbors, its history “a record of almost continual tragedy,” Laos comes to the screen in The Betrayal/Nerakhoon. Made intermittently over nearly a quarter century, this personal documentary traces the agony of powerless Third World states and, through one particular family unit, the dissolution of blood ties and tradition among refugees tossed willy-nilly onto foreign shores.
Short of docudrama in taking the perspective of its real-life participants, the film mixes in a minimum of stock footage as filmic objective correlative -- thus, the sparing scenes of troops, POWs, devastated villages, devastated villagers, Nixon, JFK, Communist Pathet Lao victory celebration, and secret U.S. saturation bombing that dumped more tonnage than in both World Wars combined in the northeast and the length of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Along with the CIA’s nose deep in the neutral kingdom and the chaos and reprisals following America’s sudden 1975 withdrawal -- the title works on both this political level and on the familial one -- this is backdrop, however, the not totally realized center being memory of peaceful waterways and saffron Theravada Buddhist monks contrasted to the struggle to maintain dignity and unity across an ocean in a new world. That ancient land left physically behind remains off others’ radar, vague and, it is noted, even its name mispronounced by President Kennedy.
To subtitled Lao words of his grandmother (voiced by Boualay Vannalith), shorthaired Thavisouk “Thavi” Phrasavath gazes out a window rushing past rice paddies. This is his film-framing journey in time and space, to lost childhood to visit that aged grandmother, relatives with new children, the older and younger sisters Charphet and Douangchai left behind in the one-hour rush being smuggled across the Mekong, and to the riverside burial site of his umbilical cord so that at death “your spirit will return to the place of its birth.”
This directorial debut for cinematographer Ellen Kuras credits subject Thavisouk as her co-director and -writer and also as editor. The movie grew from a friendship when, filming Laotians in upstate New York, she was given Thavisouk’s name with regard to her desire to learn their Thai-Isaan-related language. Their ensuing talks about his native land, individual and familial experience as displaced persons, and the problematical Southeast Asian community in Brooklyn, became this tale of “the war [that] has never really ended.”
Names difficult for us and so not dwelt on, and chronology running backward and forward, that tale is initially confusing, with parts looking as though taken by actors, until one realizes that, no, these are the same real people over years, heavier or thinner, baby-faced or mature, and yes, that is indeed Thavi with shoulder-length hair hanging out in Brooklyn.
At age thirteen, Thavi had fulfilled a soothsayer’s chicken-claw prediction and already escaped west, where the reduced family were reunited in a refugee camp. All this logically imaged through a couple still photos and voiced memories, they then chose the United States because father had in effect fought on the American side.
Much of the filmed ninety-six minutes takes place in Brooklyn, around the shared two-room tenement beside a crack house where they were dropped when a sponsor failed to deliver. Time passes, the children grow up neither Lao nor fully the Americans whose ghetto styles they ape, neighbor women cackling about today’s youth, muggings and killings, mother inconsolable at her loss of respect and control, and Thavi resentfully accepting his eldest-male father rôle to rebellious siblings.
Generational chafing appears resolved when the father unexpectedly telephones and comes by, but happiness lasts only the videoed week until he reveals his new family life in Florida, leaves, and is deaf to phone calls for paternal support. An American tragedy, from the Asian gang violence bewailed in New York but equally there in Miami, brings Thavi to his half-siblings and the father who, too, has his regrets and is still loved by the mother.
The young ones grow up, calm down, are married, have children, move upstate or to New Jersey, to enclaves within their country’s by far largest diaspora community -- over 400,000 in the United States, a tenth of the homeland population. Mature Thavi journeys back to his roots, now alien and yet forever part of who he is. Active in film and in Asian community work, Thavi and wife Mouky live in Brooklyn; they smile for a snapshot with young Ahmeeta, who will grow up American and yet continue the parents’ memories and traditions.
(Released by Cinema Guild; not rated by MPAA.)