In case you weren’t paying attention, given Sally Hawkins’s egregious snub and all, Werner Herzog is now an Oscar nominee—and not a moment too soon. Now it remains to be seen if an adventurous cameramen will pick out the maverick director out of the Oscar crowd and lock on to the man’s eternally and blissfully blazed face—assuming, that is, Herzog even shows up. We can’t imagine Herzog expects to win this one, even if he probably has the vote of every academy member who counts Aguirre, Wrath of God as one of their favorite movies. On paper, the excellent Katrina doc Trouble the Water screams a winner, but this enraged examination of social injustice is possibly headier than even Encounters at the End of the World. Ellen Kuras and Thavisouk Phrasavath’s acclaimed The Betrayal and Scott Hamilton Kennedy’s The Garden bring to mind past winners in this category, but this one seems like a knockout punch for Man on Wire, especially with Standard Operating Procedure out of the running. As big a crowd-pleaser as Slumdog Millionaire, Man on Wire has won almost as many awards since the start of the Oscar season, connecting with people first as a thrilling exaltation of high-wire artiste Philippe Petit’s chutzpah, then as a memorial to the similarly superhuman daring responsible for building the stage the man walked across on the morning of August 7th, 1974.
The Betrayal (#1–10 of 4)
[The Betrayal opens today at the IFC Center in Manhattan. Clickhere for Lauren Wissot’s review of the film, originally published on The House Next Door on June 14th, 2008 as part of our coverage of the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival.]
The day I interviewed famed cinematographer Ellen Kuras (who I’d always envisioned as a wishbone with Scorsese and Spike Lee pulling on either leg) and Thavisouk Phrasavath, co-directors of the 23-years-in-the-making labor of love The Betrayal, congratulations were in order. The film, about the fallout from U.S. foreign policy in Laos as told through the personal lens of Thavi and his immigrant family, had just made the doc shortlist for the Academy Awards (along with Man On Wire. Attention Werner Herzog, HND interviews are good luck!) But as we spoke about everything from the American government’s refusal to fully own up to historical atrocities committed in its name (thereby repeating them) to the influence Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind (on which Kuras was cinematographer) had on The Betrayal, I got a strong sense that the filmmakers were aiming higher than even Oscar. Sure, a statue would be nice, but influencing an Iraq pullout would be much more on point and gratifying.
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“I run between what I remember and what I’ve forgotten,” Thavisouk Phrasavath says in his and acclaimed cinematographer Ellen Kuras’ co-directed debut feature The Betrayal (Nerakhoon), which follows Thavisouk (Thavi for short) and his family’s series of betrayals, first at the hands of the U.S. government in Laos and then from within the family itself once he, his mother, and siblings reach American shores. A labor of love over twenty years in the making, the doc combines rich, elegiac images of the Laotians and their land, meditative music, prophetic folk wisdom told in voiceover, footage from the Vietnam era (from utter devastation to empty presidential speeches), Thavi as a teenage long-hair in Brooklyn, wayward youth framed metaphorically against a backdrop of moving trains—all stitched together like a patchwork quilt, like shards of a dream.
Its title referring to the monstrously destructive and disingenuously marketed U.S. involvement in Laos during the Vietnam war, The Betrayal elucidates on one Laotian citizen’s memories in much the same way that the more visually dynamic Tarnation acted as an emotional scrapbook of its makers troubled experiences. Though less stylistically vigorous, Ellen Kuras and Thavisouk Phrasavath’s work only sporadically wants for aesthetic intrigue, the majority of the film a probing, textured mix of historical and personally shot footage set to an effectively disembodied voiceover, mapping the progression of events that saw the narrating Thavisouk travel with his family from Laos to Brooklyn. Through eloquently broken English and with an almost poetically minimal use of language, Thavisouk expresses the personal effects of political and cultural turmoil amid warfare so effectively that the viewer themselves becomes enraptured in his headspace. In purely technical terms, the film can be described as something of a master class in home-movie construction, but the filmmakers display a seemingly intuitive understanding of filmic language with the complementary use of sight and sound at work in these prolonged montages. Too bad, then, that the occasionally stagnant talking head appears throughout, effectively nipping in the bud this wondrous pastiche’s accruing transcendence. At its best, Betrayal stunningly illuminates how our surroundings profoundly imprint themselves on our dreamsand our nightmares.
The Betrayal @ Human Rights Watch International Film Festival
This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.