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Nerakhoon (The Betrayal)

Ellen Kuras, ASC

Thavisouk Phrasavath

The “labor of love” documentary may be a bit of a cliché, but how else could one describe Nerakhoon (The Betrayal), which took cinematographer/co-director Ellen Kuras, ASC more than 20 years to complete? “I never imagined it would take 23 years,” she admits, “but over the course of those years, I’ve been really busy, you know!” From the time she began the documentary as a graduate student with no filmmaking experience to her present status as an A-list cinematographer, Kuras has shot dozens of projects, participating in cinematography’s evolution from a wholly photochemical process to an increasingly digital one. That evolution plays out in Nerakhoon, which contains some of the first 16mm images Kuras ever shot and concludes with images captured on the digital Red One camera. 

Nerakhoon chronicles the experiences of Thavisouk “Thavi” Phrasavath, a Laotian immigrant whose family was split apart in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. After Communist loyalists kidnapped Thavi’s father, his mother fled to the United States with Thavi and three of his five siblings; they settled in Brooklyn. Assuming his father to be dead, Thavi became the family’s unlikely patriarch as they struggled to integrate into East New York’s gang-plagued Southeast Asian community.  

Kuras’ work on the project began in the mid-1980s, after she received a grant to make a documentary short about the Laotian community in Rochester, New York. She had recently earned a degree in anthropology and was preparing to study cinematography at the Lödz Film School in Poland. She wanted to learn to speak Lao and put word out that she was seeking a native teacher. “One day, Thavi called me up and said, ‘Who are you, and why do you want to learn my language?’” she recalls. “We ended up spending a lot of time together, and in the course of those meetings, I asked him about everything from Lao mythology and philosophy to the events that happened to him during the bombing of his hometown during the war. That’s how Nerakhoon came to be.” 

The goal was not a purely vérité documentary. “I wanted to explore how people vicariously experience memory, to recapture the sense of Laos’ past in [Thavi’s] mind and re-create it in a dramatic form,” says Kuras. “That allowed me a lot of room for visual experimentation.” She shot mostly in 16mm using an Arri 16SR-2 mounted with a Zeiss 10-100mm zoom. “I felt symbiotic with that camera, my first camera,” she notes. Eventually, she incorporated more than a half-dozen other formats, including Super 16mm, Super 8mm, 35mm, VHS and 3/4" video.  

To visualize the family’s escape from Laos, Kuras wanted to mimic Thavi’s point of view when he fled through tall reeds. “I knew I would use Super 8 for the memory sequences and blow it up optically to 16mm,” she says. “I went out in the fields and ponds of Shelter Island [New York] and ran through the reeds, as though I were Thavi escaping, and then Thavi would enter that same frame. Thavi essentially gets to step into his own point of view. What differentiated the feeling of memory and of docudrama in some of the shots was a fine line, though; I had to experiment with angles and how Thavi was framed to counter the feeling of re-enactment, which rang false to me.”  

As often happens in documentary filmmaking, chance and circumstance sometimes forced Kuras’ choice of format, but she discovered that even a consumer camera or non-professional medium could yield compelling images in the project’s evolving collage. “I shot another escape sequence, this time a real one, on VHS,” she says. “One day we got a call from a local Lao family who had been held up by an Asian gang in Brooklyn. They were going to be killed if they didn’t come up with $4,000 in the next 24 hours. We had to leave right away, and VHS was the only camera I had in my apartment at the time.” The scene is framed from a low angle in the front seat of the car because Kuras was driving and shooting at the same time, using her knee to keep Thavi in the frame. Rain pours down outside as Thavi questions the family and addresses the camera/Kuras. “The tape had already been used, so I just recorded over it,” she says. “I actually like the way the camera created a bit of a shutter lag. It looks quite painterly and beautiful.” 

Most of the film was shot on 16mm — 11 Kodak stocks, several of which were discontinued over the course of the production. “In time, I definitely made a distinction between the looks of the stocks, but when I started shooting, I was more naïve, and some of my decisions were ruled by what ASA I thought I could support with available light,” says Kuras. She matched the properties of some stocks to re-photograph archival footage projected onto a wall or playing on a TV. “I re-shot some Kodachrome footage of the Pathet Lao taking over the country, and I knew I wanted to keep those colors really saturated, which is why I used [100T] 7248. For shooting off the TV screen, which was daylight-balanced, I used [250D] 7297 when the screen was dim and 48 without a filter when looking for cooler, richer blacks. I experimented a lot to see which stocks would render the best look.”  

Kuras traveled to Laos in 1995 to capture the film’s emotional climax, wherein Thavi reunites with his two sisters who were left behind with a grandmother. Capturing the scene took a stroke of luck. She recalls, “At the time, Laos was a hardcore communist nation that wasn’t issuing visas to Western journalists, much less filmmakers, so I hid my SR-2, three mags, tripod and film in a bag. While we were waiting to get on our plane in Bangkok, a man next to us in line started chatting with us, and it turned out he’d been a filmmaker in Laos. When we got to Laos, he bribed the officials to let us through; he took a Hi-8 camera we’d brought just for the hell of it and told them, ‘It’s for home videos.’ So they gave us permission to shoot ‘home videos,’ and meanwhile, our bags were stuffed with film equipment!” 

Intending the Laos material to be poetic, Kuras shot all the footage at 32 fps and looked for images that could work as visual metaphors. One of these opens the film. She recalls, “I saw these kids playing with some water buffalo, and it struck me then that Thavi had really lost his childhood because of the war. Here were these two kids playing freely, like they didn’t have a care in the world. To me, that represented the loss of innocence in the world and Thavi’s loss of innocence in particular. We jumped out, and I reveled in shooting the lush setting sunlight on the pond, with the kids oblivious to the camera.” 

The last shot of Nerakhoon was captured with one of the first Red Ones tested in the field. “A friend of mine visited New York with one of the Reds, and I was very excited to try it,” says Kuras. “Thavi, being an engineer and an emerging editor, was also keen to see it at work. I took him, his wife and their new baby into my backyard to shoot them for the postscript of the film. Thavi looks especially happy in the scene because we were using the Red camera for the first time!” 

Kuras took Nerakhoon to Deluxe Toronto for the visual end of post. “Their support was instrumental,” she says. “They embraced me and this project; they moved schedules around to accommodate my crazy work schedule; and they organized the entire in-line workflow.” She color-corrected with colorists Mila Petriki from Toronto and Joe Gawler from New York; Kuras and Gawler had collaborated on Personal Velocity (AC April ’02)and The Ballad of Jack and Rose (AC April ’05). “I envisioned Nerakhoon as a film with narrative, vérité and poetic components, so I wanted to do a more sophisticated grade than one would normally do for a documentary,” she says. “Documentaries don’t necessarily have to look gritty to be real and believable.

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