25 November 2008 | Chris Knipp
Pawns in the game
This documentary is complicated and tricky to follow and leaves many questions unanswered, but it's poetic and moving and its subject is important. George Packer has written about how Iraqis who worked for the Americans have been left hanging. It happened to members of the Laotian military who worked for the Americans during the "secret" (or more accurately denied) bombing of Laos during the Vietnam war--a campaign justified by the fact that the North Vietnamese conduit, the Ho Chi Mihn Trail, ran through Laos. The US was also supporting the Royal Laotian Army "nautralist' forces against the communist Pathet Lao, as well as training Laotians to fight in US operations.
The film shows JFK talking about the need for Laos's "neutrality" (and its cooperation against the communists) and Nixon denying the bombing. Titles give staggering statistics of how many bombs were dropped on Laos over a nine-year period by US planes--more than in World Wars I and II combined. There is no information about how many Laotians were killed.
When America lost the war in Vietnam and pulled out, it also abandoned Laos and its Laotian collaborators. This affected Thavisouk Phrasavath ("Thavi"), a lean, toothy man who appears at various ages in the film, with hair sometimes down to his waist or his shoulders, in a crew-cut, or short and slicked back. This may reflect his struggle for an identity. He is the narrator of the film, its central figure, and the filmmaker's collaborator. The film, shot over a 23-year period, is the saga of a family torn apart by war and collaboration with the US, ending in uneasy settlement in America. The film's Laotian title, 'Nerakhoon,' actually means "the betrayed ones." That is how Thavi came to think of his family members and those like them.
Thavi grew up in Laos knowing only war. His father was one of those Laotian officers who, as he himself tells the camera, actually called in the American planes that dropped bombs on his country "to save it." When the Americans abandoned Laos, the Pathet Lao took over. It was a happy moment, with celebration and singing everywhere. Then the Pathet came and took Thavi's father away for a reeducation "seminar"--imprisonment that lasted for years. From then on his family, his mother and nine children, lived in fear. Thavi, the eldest son, escaped on his own by swimming the Mekong River. In Thavi's words and images of the water, the film evokes that lonely swim, when he would have been happy to die if it came to that, to be "gone and gone." Instead he woke up alive the next day in Thailand, and he became a street boy in Bankock for two years, when the rest of his family managed to come and they all went to a refugee camp. Well, not all: two elder sisters were not at home when the facilitator came to help the family flee across the river in a leaky boat, and their mother was forced to leave without them.
'The Betrayal' blends period footage with impressionistic images of flight through woods backed up by the surging music of Howard Shore, and there are shots of Thavi talking. There is no footage of the family before it fled, but Kuras compensates with shots of people doing similar things.
The big shock is what happens to the family when the mother chooses for them to be sent to the US rather than France or Canada, and they are dumped unceremoniously in a very dangerous part of Brooklyn in 1970. Without a father, in this ugly, hostile environment, the various siblings revolted, the girls hanging out with "bad" boys, the brothers joining gangs. There is a back-and-forth in the film between Thavi's mother speaking in the eighties in anger and despair about the bad pass the family came to at that time (Kuris discovered them around 1985) and today, more serenely recalling nearly forty years of struggle.
After fifteen years the father found them and visited them from Florida. Like the takeover of the Pathet Lao, this was another moment of hope and happiness followed by despair, when he revealed after a week that he had another wife and children in Florida and was returning to them. We see Thavi calling his father later and quietly begging him to come and take things in hand, to no avail. Later, Thavi attends the funeral of one of his step brothers in Florida--a gang victim, the same "reds" gang there as in New York.
Thavi referred to the analogy with Iraq in an interview at the Witness documentary film festival. There are over two million Iraqi refugees from the US invasion and occupation, and only a tiny handful have been accepted into the US. I think this larger implication is what Kuras and Phrasavath seek to communicate with the film's mix of poetry and devastation: that more than once America has made this "mistake" (Thavi's gentle word) of abandoning its collaborators too often must learn not to keep making it.
What has happened to the family today? The film, too impressionistic at points, doesn't give many details. They don't live in Brooklyn any more (too gentrified and expensive?). The mother lives in New Jersey with a daughter, Thavi lives in New York with a wife and small child. He made a trip back to Laos and was reunited with the two lost older sisters, a grandmother who died at 104, and other family members. And to look at the other siblings, they've settled down and stabilized, but we don't know how they managed that, or any of the specifics about them, or what Thavi does now--but clearly he's a filmmaker, and a spokesman on the issues brought up in 'The Betrayal.' He's edited two other films related to immigration and border-crossing issues and he edited this one. This is well-known DP Kuras' directorial debut. Despite its flaws this is still a rich document.