The title of noted cinematographer Ellen Kuras’s directorial debut takes on two meanings: the betrayal of one nation by another and the betrayal of a son by his father. But as this powerful documentary, 23 years in the making, unfolds, another definition of betray resonates: to show, to indicate. Recounting the harrowing journey of her subject, Thavisouk Phrasavath, born in war-ravaged Laos in the late ’60s, Kuras is not interested in a detached portrait of suffering: Phrasavath is given a codirector’s credit, and he serves as the film’s editor. Kuras—who has shot films for Tom Kalin, Spike Lee and Michel Gondry—began making The Betrayal in 1984, six years before her first gig as cinematographer. If Phrasavath’s story somehow gave birth to Kuras’s career, she is careful to honor him.
“The very first thing I ever knew was my country was at war,” Phrasavath says in voiceover, followed by Kuras’s succinct description of the United States’ covert war in Laos during Vietnam—and the later disavowal by the U.S. of all those Laotians, like Phrasavath’s father, who fought for them. Phrasavath, his mother and seven of his nine siblings eventually make it to Brooklyn in the ’80s, settling next to a drug den. Kuras seamlessly blends in scenes of the mulleted Phrasavath, barely out of his teens, assuming the role of patriarch in a new land that seems almost as violent as the country he had to leave.
Unlike Carl Deal and Tia Lessin’s Katrina doc Trouble the Water, which includes footage shot by its subjects, The Betrayal avoids the taint of opportunism; Kuras and Phrasavath become collaborators in telling his story. Though Kuras may erase her involvement too much (press notes reveal that she and Phrasavath met when she was looking for a Lao tutor), she remains ever vigilant about the code of the most compassionate documentarians: Never betray your subject.