This Was War Explaining Itself to Me
I was studying propaganda, looking at how it was used in the interwar years, and so there’s always been a curiosity about how meaning is created through images.
—Ellen Kuras, “Refugees’ Tale Took 23 Years to Tell” (New York Times 8 June 2008)
There was this lady on her bicycle. I saw that the bomb just hit her right in her back. The bicycle and her body was turned into powder.
The first images of Nerakhoon (The Betrayal) are at once lovely and weighty: sunlight dances across a river’s surface as a fisherman draws up his net, alive with shimmering little fish. A next cut shows children atop water buffalos, their silhouettes fluid and harmonious, accompanied by Thavisouk Phrasavath’s narration. As a child in Laos, his grandparents passed on a story of the future: “The time will come,” they said, “when the universe will break. It will break piece by piece, country by country, religion by religion. Husband and wife will break into two, the children will escape into the wind, they will scatter to hide on islands like frightened deer hunted by evil men. The world we that we know now will change beyond recognition.”
As the river and light suggest a complex continuity between humans and their environments, so too does Thavi’s story, looking forward and back, traversing times and possibilities. “The world that we know now” is ever shifting, ever unlike the world we will know eventually. Just so, when Thavi first appears in Ellen Kuras’ Nerakhoon, for which he is primary subject as well as co-director and editor, he is traveling, returning to Laos, the land he left as a child. His memories are both poetic and harsh, tied up in the war he left behind but also never escaped. As the film shows colonial photos of natives, archival footage of soldiers, homes in ruins and landscapes decimated, he recalls, “Almost every morning on my way to school, I remember seeing the wounded soldiers crying in pain on the stretchers. They were all surrounded by the body bags laying on the field by the army hospital. Days and nights, planes and jets flew over the roof of my house on their way to targets.” He pauses. “This was war explaining itself to me. I thought killing and dying was only a normal thing.”
On its face, Thavi’s story is like those of many other survivors of the U.S. war in Vietnam, which bled into Cambodia and Laos even as the U.S. denied it. The war was, as Thavi says, ongoing and insidious. The film includes speeches by John Kennedy (“I want to make it clear to the American people and to all the world that all we want in Laos is peace, not war, a truly neutral government, not a cold war pawn”) and Richard Nixon (“There are no American combat forces in Laos. At the present time we are concerned about the North Vietnamese move into Laos - providing logistical support and some training for the neutralist government…”) even as it makes clear that the West (France as well as the U.S.) considered Southeast Asia a resource, exotic and ripe for exploitation. Thavi’s mother Orady recalls that her life as the wife of a soldier—with 10 children—was “full of struggle” (“I was so afraid to be killed by a rocket, leaving my children behind”). Today, she sighs, “I never dreamed my life would be what it is now.” After Thavi’s father spent years fighting with the Americans, helping them to bomb communist targets, he was, like other Laotians, abandoned by the U.S., which pulled out of the region in 1975. Arrested by the pro-communist Pathet Lao, he was lost to Orady and her children; she was in turn rejected by neighbors who believed her husband was a traitor to the government now in place.
Betrayal—actual and perceived—is pervasive in Nerakhoon, which title translates to “those who betray.” the film goes on to reveal the brutal dimensions of Thavi and Orady’s stories. At age 12, he crosses the Mekong River into Thailand, where he lives on the streets of Bangkok for two years, awaiting his family. Orady decides to move everyone to America, believing the country her husband served will look after them. Perhaps needless to say, their arrival in Brooklyn is something of a shock (“My family and I started to panic,” Thavi says, the camera looking out on sidewalks filled with black people. “We thought we had gotten on the wrong plane and landed on the wrong continent”). They settle into a two-room apartment they must share with a family of six Cambodians and “a Vietnamese guy” as well (“People,” Thavi observes, “who are not always friendly in history”).
As their lives take a turn into yet another new world, Thavi meets Kuras. She films him throughout his adolescence and young adulthood, their collaboration taking shape over some 23 years. Footage of Thavi during the ‘80s show his long hair, dragon tattoo, and skinny jeans, standing on sidewalks with other kids, sucking on cigarettes and drinking beer in plastic cups. His brothers and sisters appear as well, their eyes heavily mascaraed and their attitudes vaguely rebellious, even as they are also haunted by the Asian gangs who regularly rob and murder in their neighborhood. Having escaped the wars in Southeast Asia, Orady worries about her children on Flatbush Avenue. She frets that they have become aliens in America. “They ignore me, they refuse me,” she says, picking at her red sweater. “Every time they turn on the music, their eyes glaze over, they are lost in their own world, all of them.”
Even as their world remains unknown to her, Thavi does his best to balance his sense of responsibility and his resentment. As long as he believes his father is a hero who fought valiantly on front lines (it doesn’t matter, Thavi says, that his side “lost” the war), Thavi sees his siblings as his responsibility, an extension of his respect for his father. When they learn that the father is in fact alive, surviving years in a prison camp and since living in Florida with a new family, Thavi feels cheated and hurt—again. Though he feels sadness and anger for his mother (“No words could describe my lost heart,” she says), he is aggrieved as well. “I didn’t create these children,” he says, the angles of his face circled in cigarette smoke. “I took his place for so many years, now he has a life with another wife.”
Thavi doesn’t need to articulate how he comes to terms with his father’s own gruesome experiences his betrayals by others turning into his betrayals of his family. And the film doesn’t need to underline how his experience is like that of other war victims, today, in Iraq or Afghanistan, children surrounded by chaos and bloody violence, betrayed repeatedly, whether by accident or intention.
The film resonates for a future as yet unknown as it looks back on events obscured by history and media images. “I run between what I remember and what is forgotten,” Thavi says, “searching for the story of our people whose truth has not been told. As we move further from the Laos of our past, we are travelers moving in and out of dream and nightmare. What happens to people without land, a place to call home?” It’s a question Nerakhoon cannot possibly answer. But asking it is one way to initiate a sense of recovery and responsibility.