Reviewed by: Abhijit Sen
The Betrayal (Nerakhoon)
by Ellen Kuras, Director; Thavisouk Phrasavath, Co-Director
Cinena Guild, NY, NY, 2009
DVD, 96 mins., col.
Distributor’s website: http://cinemaguild.com/.
Reviewed by Abhijit Sen
The Betrayal (Nerakhoon) directed by Ellen Kuras (cinematographer for critically acclaimed documentaries and features) is a dark and deep look into the inner-workings of forces that drive humans to do what they have to do in order to survive and live in this imperfect and unfair world. It is also a story of the pliability and resiliency of the human spirit, which enables humans to survive the worst kinds of pitfalls, barriers, and obstacles that are thrown at people in their course of life, and yet lead a decent and dignified life. In that sense the film focuses deeply into the human spirit along with political and psychological issues.
The documentary is a story about a Laotian family displaced from Laos after the Vietnam War. The documentary contrasts the idyllic and calm life in pre-war Laos with the war-torn country in which Thavisouk (Thavi), the narrator, was born.
The story is told from Thavi and Thavi’s mother’s perspective. Thavi’s father, an army officer, took a military job during the Vietnam war with the Americans because he got better pay and remuneration. Laos became a secret, illegal base for a guerilla army conducting an illegal war on Vietnam. Even though Laos was supposed to be neutral during the war with Vietnam, a secret Laotian unit was formed and created by the U.S. to fight the Viet Cong using guerilla tactics. The father was one of the Laotian officers who supported the U.S. war efforts in Vietnam and worked for the Americans. He was one of the key personnel who called in the American B-52 bombers for bombing raids and gave them the target coordinates and locations to bomb.
There’s relevant and adequate documentation on U.S’s secret war in Laos. Archival materials were appropriately and judiciously used in the documentary by the director. Archival materials included interviews with U.S. Army generals, press conferences given by then president Nixon, film clips of bombing raids over Laos (177 sorties were flown each day), vintage photos and videos of Laotians and Laotian history, culture, and mythologies.
Laos, like Vietnam, Cambodia, and other Asian countries struggled under colonialism for centuries and then in the mid 20th C. bore the brunt of the war being fought in a neighboring country even though Laos was a so called ‘neutral’ nation. Unfortunately, the Ho Chi Minh trail ran partly through Laos. The Americans bombed the trail on a daily basis. By the middle 1960s, the country had fallen into proxy warfare between pro-US and pro-Vietnamese irregular military groups. In 1968, the Army of North Vietnam launched a multi-division invasion of Laos. The Pathet Lao were pushed to the side in the conflict and reduced to the role of an auxiliary force to the North Vietnamese army. Unable to match the heavy Soviet and Chinese weapons in addition to the numerical strength of the Vietnamese forces, the Royal Lao Army took itself out of the conflict after heavy losses. The communist forces battled the Royal Lao Army, U.S. irregular forces (including Air America and other contract employees, Hmong commandos), and Thai "volunteer" forces in Laos winning effective control in the North and East.
The government itself was effectively powerless, for the most part, and manipulated by both sides. The Pathet Lao held hundreds of US "detainees" as POWs during and after the Vietnam War. In 1975, the Pathet Lao with the direct assistance of the North Vietnamese Army began attacking government strongholds. With the fall of the South Vietnamese government in April 1975 in their minds, the non-communist elements of the national government decided that allowing the Pathet Lao to enter power would be better than to have them take it by force. In November 1975, the Pathet Lao took over Laos, abolishing the monarchy and establishing the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. Shortly thereafter, the Pathet Lao signed an agreement with Vietnam that allowed Vietnam to station its army inside the country and to send political and economic advisors into the country. Vietnam afterward forced Laos to cut any remaining economic ties to its other neighbors.
Thavi’s family stood by the Americans during the war. But like all good patriots they were overjoyed to see their own countrymen regain power and control of their nation after centuries of colonialism, after the pro-U.S. government was toppled by the Pathet Lao communist forces. Their joy was short-lived – Thavi and his family was immediately accused of being collaborators, tarnished and labeled as an ‘enemy of the state’ by the Pathet Lao government that took power after the American retreat. There have been many cases where the Americans had abandoned their ‘allies’ who fought with them during the war most notably among them were the Hmongs in Vietnam.
The film traced Thavi’s final escape from Laos into Thailand and his family’s desperate attempt to get to Thailand later without two of Thavi’s sisters, adding dramatic tension to the documentary. The family eventually got the green light to move on to America, their hopes rose, and the future looked much brighter. The rosy picture of America got tarnished very soon on their arrival at New York. The bitter disappointment of her life in the U.S. was clearly reflected in the mother’s voice and eyes. She was especially frustrated, angered and hurt by the rebellious behavior of her daughters and their attitude towards her since she was the one who helped them survive the refugee camps, hunger, and other deprivations. Such drastic change in Thavi’s siblings’ behavior and attitude also perplexed and hurt Thavi. The close-up shots of the mother’s and Thavi’s eyes and faces show the inner turmoil and anguish of living in a foreign country and culture, of their life in the U.S.A.
The Betrayal of Thavi and his family, takes place at three levels:
a) Thavi and his family are betrayed by their own countrymen when they come to power. Pathet Lao vilifies Thavi’s family as traitors because of their father’s affiliation with the U.S. Army.
b) Thavi’s family is betrayed again by the U.S. government when they come to the States as refugees. In spite of all the promises and dreams, they are put up in drug-infested housing blocks without any adequate assistance and money. The American culture also takes a toll on the family especially on Thavi’s younger siblings who become Americanized too fast, both behaviorally and socially, and show no respect towards their mother and they do as they please.
c) Thavi’s father betrayed his wife and the family by marrying another woman while he was a refugee in Thailand. This happened unwittingly since Thavi’s father was ignorant about his original Laotian family’s escape to the United States. So Thavi’s dad had another set of family in Florida while his original family lived in New York/New Jersey area. In spite of all of these ‘betrayals’ Thavi still has hope, faith in himself, and love for his family and his new country. This is what the documentary is all about – it’s about the human spirit that can overcome insurmountable obstacles against all odds and still remain unvanquished, resilient and hopeful full of love and compassion for fellow human beings.
The director quite artfully contrasts the family’s earlier life in Laos with the present life in Brooklyn in the American segment of the documentary. Deft editing incorporated interplay of different times and places, and the use of Black & White with color segments in the film contrasted old with new adding dramatic tension to the narrative. The camera was utilized creatively and in an aesthetically pleasing manner. The camera captured panoramic views of the Laotian landscape and intimate close-ups of the people that conveyed a sense of beauty and serenity that was almost totally destroyed by the war. And in the background the sound added to this feeling of desolation and despair with the sad, melancholic and ethereal music. The Thavi family story would have made a gripping, suspenseful war or an action feature film, but the documentary itself was a fully loaded movie that kept me at the edge of my seat.
All said and done, this documentary is an eye-opener about a war of the past that took untold human lives and may hold lessons for present and future wars. It could well serve as a cautionary tale for the future if only more people could see and understand the repercussions of unjust, cruel and inhuman warfare.