The Betrayal is Oscar-nominated in the documentary category and opens at the Dallas Angelika today. It doesn’t have any real ties to North Texas, but the back story is one a lot of artists can related to: the passion project.
The film follows Thavisouk Phrasavath, who fled Laos when things got ugly during the Vietnam War. He meets back up with some of his family in Thailand and immigrates with them to Brooklyn. The family thinks that they are moving to the promised land, where every house has indoor plumbing. What they didn’t know is that they were moving into a two-room apartment that already houses another family and is next door to a crack den.
It’s shortly after this, in 1984, that Thavisouk met Ellen Kuras, a young filmmaker working on a documentary about another Lao family in Rochester. Ellen asked Thavisouk to teach her the language so that she could better make her film, but in the process, Ellen became more interested in Thavi’s story.
Fast-forward 20 years. Ellen has become a world-class cinematographer, shooting films for everyone from Martin Scorsese (Shine a Light) to Michael Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) to Spike Lee (Summer of Sam). But whenever she has spare time, she keeps coming back to the story of Thavi and his family, filming a little here and there as his story progresses.
The result is The Betrayal, a documentary that took Ellen – who shares directing credits with Thavi – nearly 25 years to make.
As Ellen says in her director’s statement:
“I laugh when I’m asked whether I planned to take 23 years to make the film. ‘Are you kidding?!’ … The reasons are many, but the main one is that I’ve shot many films over the years and this project has always been the project to return to – a passion project which has given me the opportunity to explore ideas both as story and as picture.”
I would wager that she makes more money in a year shooting studio films than she will ultimately make on this film that took half her life to make. But my guess is the reward of seeing such a monumental project finally hit the screen (and be nominated for an Oscar, no less) is worth much more.