Review by Cameron Maitland
It’s often easy to think that to make a good documentary all it takes is finding the right subjects and turning the camera on them. Examining Ellen Kuras and Thavisouk Phrasavath’s The Betrayal though you can easily see it takes the strong hand of a good director to make even interesting emotional material work.
The film begins interestingly enough illuminating the story of co-director Thavisouk Phrasavath’s youth in Laos and the role the U.S. government played there during the Vietnamese war. Thavisouk’s father was enlisted in a secret force used to attack their own country and when the communists took power years later, and it turned his family into outcasts, forcing them to escape to America. All of this sounds compelling, doubly so considering the film has decades worth of footage following the family and their immigrant struggles but many choices by the filmmakers really turn the movie into a grating, boring piece.
First, and most obviously, the choice to use Thavisouk as the narrator seems to be the fatal flaw. He seems to dually lack an interesting outside perspective or a solid emotional voice so instead he lays somewhere in the middle as a fairly boring voice. Also, though his broken English does serve to show how far he has come as an immigrant, when compared to the lyrical thoughts and emotions expressed by his mother and father in their native Laotian, it seems grating to have to head his often barely grammatical attempts at expressing his feelings in his second language. Finally, the filmmakers seem to choose the most obvious and clichéd parts of the family’s journey as their focus, something that slows down the film and creates little sympathy in an audience. While an absentee father, lost loved ones, gang violence and poverty in this immigrant experience are tragic things, it’s something we’ve seen countless times before and the filmmakers’ refusal to focus on anything innovative in the telling of these events does a disservice to what the Phrasavath family has been through.
The Betrayal is unfortunately an interesting story, poorly told and an example of how much the influence of the filmmaker has on the effectiveness of their documentary.
Ellen Kuras and Thavisouk Phrasavath | USA/Laos | 2008 | 96min
Wed. Oct. 1 | 12:15pm | Empire Granville Theatre 1
Wed. Oct. 8 | 7:00pm | Empire Granville Theatre 2
Thur. Oct. 9 | 4:30pm | Empire Granville Theatre 1