Meet the Academy Award® Nominees: Ellen Kuras--'The Betrayal (Nerakhoon)'

Over the next ten days, we at IDA will be introducing--and in some cases, re-introducing--our community to the filmmakers whose work has been nominated for an Academy Award for either Best Documentary Feature or Best Documentary Short Subject. As we did in conjunction with the DocuWeekTM Theatrical Documentary Showcase that we presented last summer, we have asked the filmmakers to share the stories behind their films-the inspirations, the challenges
and obstacles, the goals and objectives, the reactions to their films so far, and the impact of an Academy Award nomination.

So, to continue this series of conversations, here is Ellen Kuras, director/producer of The Betrayal (Nerakhoon), which is nominated in the Documentary Feature category.

Synopsis: Filmed over the course of 23 years, The Betrayal (Nerakhoon) is an astonishing tale of perseverance--one family's struggle to survive their journey from
war-torn Laos to the streets of New York. Eloquent yet devastating, renowned cinematographer Ellen Kuras' directorial debut is a remarkable collaboration with co-director Thavisouk Phrasavath-a documentary that reveals the hidden, human face of war's "collateral damage."

IDA: How did you get started in documentary filmmaking?

Ellen Kuras: I originally started out as an aspiring photojournalist during my last year at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. Then I started photographing my neighbors who were predominately refugees-the Hmong, the Khmer, the Vietnamese-newly resettled from Southeast
Asia. At the time, I was watching a lot of films about the Vietnam War and realized that there had never been a story that revealed what happened to the ethnic Laotians involved with the CIA and the secret air war. I wanted to give voice to these people and their story.

IDA: What inspired you to make The Betrayal (Nerakhoon)?

EK: When I was a senior at Brown University, I began to work at a museum in Providence designing exhibitions around immigration and came to know many of the refugees recently resettled in the area. Among those were the Cambodians and the Hmong, who were the hill tribes from Laos. The enigma of their situation in the States-- the fact that they had fought a war for the US and yet were unrecognized here because the war was a secret air war that was only unofficially recognized--intrigued me.

I was further drawn into the story when I met more Lao refugees in Rochester, New York, when I went to the Visual Studies Workshop to study photography. These Lao were lowland Lao who had fought for the US on the ground. I wrote a grant to the National Endowment of the Humanities to
make a film about these Lao (the Hmong had already had several films made about them), as they were unknown and had no voice here in America.

When I began this project in 1984, I had begun to make the film about a different family living in Rochester, and didn't even know Thavi [co-director/editor Thavisouk Phrasavath] at the time. When I realized that speaking the Lao language would give me a way of understanding the people and the culture better, and enable me to be respectful of their traditions (why would I expect these newly-grounded refugees to speak my language?), I sought out a Lao person who could teach me to speak Lao. My number was passed onto Thavisouk, who, at 19, was a young community leader in Brooklyn. Thavi called me asking, "Who are you? Why would you want to learn my language?"; few people in the US had ever expressed an interest in where he came from or why.

After our lessons twice a week, I would ask Thavi questions about his beliefs learned in Laos, the philosophy, any stories he could remember from his grandparents and parents. These stories became the thread of the film throughout all of the years of its making.

The form I envisioned would not be cinema vérité, or a pure documentary-style approach; I was interested in making a poetic film about life and philosophy of a people, and the loss of values encountered in their real and spiritual lives as impacted by the war and relocation to America, where our value system is eroding more and more.

Little did I know-little did Thavi and I both know-that the film would follow the trajectory of his family's journey over the number of years it did. Our collaboration and friendship came together because of the film and became an ongoing dialogue that will live beyond the film.

IDA: What were some of the challenges and obstacles in making this film, and how did you overcome them?

EK: One of the first greatest obstacles was gathering material to create the vision of Thavi's memory. In 1985, Laos was (and still is) a PDR (People's Democratic Republic) closed to the Western
world. Therefore I was unable to travel to Laos to do any kind of filming. Here in America,
the United States government still has not recognized that we fought a war in Laos, therefore most of the archival material available here was classified. So how does one create a sense of place in the past without access to images to that place?

Another early challenge in making the film was that I was often out working as a beginning cinematographer to earn the money with some grant support to pay for the production and post-production of this film. As I became more and more in demand as a cinematographer both in documentary and in feature films, my available time to work on the film was reduced to time between
features. Only three years ago, when I decided to turn down all feature work, was I able to spend the time necessary to pull together the edit and complete the film.

IDAHow did your vision for the film change over the course of the pre-production, production and post-production processes?

Actually, this film fulfills a lot of the ideas I originally had when I first tried to envision the shape and the tone of the film. I always knew I wanted to make the film experiential and lyrical, one that combined a poetic voice with cinema vérité. Even three years ago, I was interested in finding the place where documentary and narrative could co-exist in a documentary film and still be the truth. And with this film, I was able to explore ideas about visual metaphor and the search for
meaning in images and sound.

IDA: As you've screened The Betrayal-whether on the festival circuit, or in screening rooms, or in living rooms--how have audiences reacted to the film? What has been most surprising or unexpected about their reactions?

Throughout the world, the reaction to the film has been deeply personal and profoundly moving. Audiences seem to identify strongly with the relationships of family that are played out in
the film, as well as its poetry woven between the images and the words. I've heard people say many times that the film resonates with them long after seeing the film.

Before the film came out, I expected some people to react to the strong criticism of US
foreign policy and our government's lack of responsibility to our allies. As far as negative reactions, that happened only once in all of our screenings, when three old ladies stood up and accused me of being unpatriotic. The most satisfying of all audience reactions has come from young Laotians who
approach me after the screenings to say, "Thank you. Thank you for filling in a part of my history that I never knew. My parents would never speak about the war and what had happened to them. And now I know."

IDA: Where were you when you first heard about your Academy Award nomination? Although it's only been three weeks since the announcement, how do you anticipate this nomination will impact your career as a filmmaker?

EK: Sitting in my kitchen in New York, I was on the phone with our producer Flora Fernandez-Marengo, who was awake at 5:30 a.m. in Los Angeles. Immediately after the announcement on the Web, I called Thavisouk to share the news.

Although I have been a quite well-known cinematographer for the past 20 years, this nomination has certainly brought an outpouring of good wishes from many friends and colleagues in the industry, but also from people from all walks of life. Although I have been asked to direct quite often in the past, I always deferred because I wanted to bring this particular story to full circle. Now that this film has finished, I feel I have the freedom to explore myself as a director now as well as expand my work in cinematography.

IDA: What docs or docmakers have served as inspirations for you?

EK: Emile Di Antonio's The Year of the Pig; Hearts & Minds, by Peter Davis; and certainly Harlan County USA, by Barbara Kopple.

The Betrayal (Nerakhoon) will be screening Saturday, February 21 at 5:15 p.m. at the Writers Guild of America Theater in Beverly Hills, as part of DocuDay LA, and Sunday, February 22, at 2:30 p.m. at the Paley Center for Media in New York City as part of DocuDay NY.

For more information on DocuDay LA, click here.

For more information on DocuDay NY, click here.