Nerakhoun: The Betrayal, a 16mm feature documentary, tells the remarkable story of Thavisouk (Thavi) Phrasavath, a Laotian refugee in Brooklyn, New York, and his family in their moving struggle against the forces of war and betrayal from Laos to the U.S. The film marks an extraordinary collaboration between renowned cinematographer and writer/director Ellen Kuras and Thavi Phrasavath, codirector and writer. Moving seamlessly between intimate personal stories and political documentary, Kuras and Phrasavath have a created a lyrical film of rephotographed archival footage, cinema vérité, interview material, and visually stunning poetic montages.
The stories of war and betrayal—the betrayal of the U.S. toward its Laotian war partners in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, the impact on the Laotian soldiers and their families, and the betrayal of Thavi’s father toward his family in the name of that war—are powerfully told through four voices in the film. These are the voices of Thavi, the child of war; his mother, Mae, the mother of 10 who searches for survival and protection for her children; his father, Paw, who tells the story of war from the point of view of the Laotians; and the grandmother, Maenya, who recites prophesies and truths which resonate with irony in the new world.
Thavi’s story begins as a child in Laos, against the backdrop of the escalating Vietnam War. As the United States withdrew from Laos and the Communist Pathet Lao gained power, Thavi’s father, a former commander in the Royal Army, was declared an enemy of the state and sent to a hard-labor reeducation camp—putting Thavi and his family in mortal danger. Repeatedly arrested because of his father’s U.S. affiliation, Thavi, 12 years old, left his family and risked his life to escape to the refugee camps in Thailand. After he was reunited with his mother and siblings two years later, the whole family fled to the United States in 1981, presuming that his father was gone forever.
However, life in the United States proves to be rife with unforeseen obstacles. Abandoned by their government sponsor with $200 in food stamps and no knowledge of English, the family struggles to survive intact in one small room in an overcrowded slum. Thavi assumes the figure of father in the family and attempts to shield his brothers and sisters from the lure of gang life on the rise in Southeast Asian refugee communities across the U.S. Much like their neighbors in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, Thavi’s family find themselves trapped by poverty and racism on the streets and at school. Just as this downward spiral starts to overpower the family, Thavi’s father calls to say he is alive in Thailand and is coming to the States. They are overjoyed to hear this and expect a reunion—but Thavi’s father has a new family and wants no part of the old one. The betrayal cuts Thavi to the bone.
Further tragedy strikes the family when Thavi’s half brother, from his father’s new family, is killed in a gang war. When Thavi’s father calls to ask for support, Thavi—still yearning for a father—rushes to his side. The death of his half brother shocks Thavi into the realization that his father is only human, a pawn in the war. Thavi tells his father, “Even though the war is over and you didn’t have a victory over your enemy, we never thought it was your fault. We never said that you weren’t a war hero. We just wanted our father back.”
Nerakhoun: The Betrayal is a story of what it means to be in exile, how one country can betray another, what a father means to his son, and what are the horrible consequences of war. Thavi’s unforgettable journey reminds us of the strength necessary to survive unthinkable conditions, and of the inspiring capacity to adapt, rebuild, and forgive.
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