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Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Betrayal (Nerakhoon)

The final nominee for Best Documentary is The Betrayal (Nerakhoon), an elegiac story about a family of Laotian immigrants, directed by Ellen Kuras. The film took over twenty years to make, and the central character, Thavisouk Phrasavath, participates in the making of the film as a co-director, co-writer, and co-editor.

Phrasavath was a child during the Vietnam War, and his homeland of Laos was a neighboring, neutral nation. However both the U.S. and North Vietnam violated its neutrality, and the country was bombed heavily by U.S. forces (three million tons of bombs fell). The U.S. also propped up a friendly government and recruited men, such as Phrasavath's father, to fight for them. When the U.S. retreated, though, these men were left to their own devices, and the father is sent to a camp by the new communist government to be "re-educated." The family thinks he is dead.

Phrasavath escapes to Thailand by swimming across a river, and his family later joins him, though two sisters have to be left behind. They ultimately go to the U.S., Brooklyn to be exact, and suffer the problems of immigrants, as they live in cramped quarters, have no food, and the children ultimately are lured or threatened by gangs.

Kuras, who is a cinematographer by trade, having done films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Blow, and Summer of Sam, has a painterly eye toward the film--it's really a poem of images. It's less a straightforward recounting of facts than a collage of memories, so it doesn't have quite the punch it might have in a different approach. There is some archival footage to set the scene--shots of Nixon lying to the American people, etc. but most of it is told through interviews with Phrasavath and his mother, a woman who has certainly gone through a lot in her life.

I haven't seen it in several months, but I can't find fault with the selection of Man on Wire by the Academy as the winner in this category. The Garden, Trouble the Water, and The Betrayal all exhibit causes that are far more relevant than Philipe Petit's antics thirty-five years ago, and Encounters at the End of the World offers the delicious idiosyncratic style of Werner Herzog, but Man on Wire seemed to me the most complete example of cinema, in story and image. But all five films are worth seeing.

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