Director Ellen Kuras on The Betrayal (Nerakhoon)
Leading up to the Oscars on Feb. 24, we will be highlighting the nominated films that have appeared in the magazine or on the Website in the last year. Nick Dawson interviewed The Betrayal director Ellen Kuras for our Director Interviews section of the Website. The Betrayal is nominated for Best Documentary.
Since she first came to prominence almost twenty years ago, Ellen Kuras has established herself as one of the most talented directors of photography working today. Film was not Kuras’ primary focus when she was younger; the New Jersey native initially attended Brown to study anthropology but became interested in photography after taking a class at the nearby Rhode Island School of Design. Though she won a Fulbright Scholarship to go to the esteemed Lodz Film Academy, Kuras instead began working in film, taking numerous below the line jobs that taught her the nuts and bolts of the cinematic process. In 1987, she worked as D.P. on her first film, Samsara: Death and Rebirth in Cambodia, and in 1992 she won the first of a record three Sundance Cinematography Awards for lensing Tom Kalin’s Swoon. Since then, Kuras has been prolific as a D.P. and established ongoing collaborations with Rebecca Miller (including Personal Velocity, another Sundance winner for Kuras), Spike Lee (from 4 Little Girls through to The 25th Hour) and more recently Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Dave Chappelle’s Block Party, Be Kind Rewind).
Ironically, Kuras’ first film as director, The Betrayal (Nerakhoon), predates her career as a cinematographer, as she began the movie 23 years ago when she was just starting out as a filmmaker. What began as an examination of the impact of cultural assimilation became a decades-long documentary about a family of Laotian refugees and their remarkable story, from the secret war the U.S. fought against their country during the 60s and 70s through to their troubled existence in New York in the 80s and beyond. Kuras set out to blur genre boundaries with the film and artfully mixes stylistic elements of fictional and experimental cinema as well as documentary. The relationship between filmmaker and subject is also blurred, as Thavisouk “Thavi” Phrasavath, the film’s main character, became Kuras’ co-director, co-writer and editor. The time and emotional investment which Kuras and Phrasavath put into The Betrayal make it not only a poetic and intricate hybrid documentary but also a resonant and dramatic real life family saga.
Filmmaker spoke to Kuras about her epic career-spanning project, bribing Laotian officials to get stock footage, and her childhood memories of Charlton Heston in Ben-Hur.
Filmmaker: Initially, way back at the start of this project, I believe you were in contact with a different Laotian family who you were planning to film.
Kuras: I started filming this one particular family because I was interested in how they were picking up different elements of our culture. Coming from the East and being in a place, Rochester, New York, that was a completely different environment, what were they picking up and what were they thinking about American culture? The movie was about American culture as much as it was about them. I always knew that I wanted to make a film that was about their worldview and told pretty much from their perspective and their story, but it wasn’t until I met Thavi, when I learned to speak Lao, that I realized that he understood what I was trying to get to because I was asking him so many questions about philosophy and worldview and mythology and how the Lao believed that the world began. It was a natural progression, after spending a year with him when he was giving me Lao lessons and I was constantly asking these questions and recording our conversations and then writing from them, that he would become part of the filmmaking process, and then eventually the subject of the film.
Filmmaker: This was before you were a D.P., so was this to be the first step of your directorial career?
Kuras: I was looking at myself as a filmmaker. Although I was very interested in political documentary, but I was thinking of this more as a film where I could look into or use elements of narrative and documentary. What happened was that I hired somebody to shoot for me and I told them what I was looking for, but I discovered that to be able to talk about putting meaning into the images is quite a challenge so I decided I would try it myself. And that’s when I started shooting, because I started creating these stories in my mind while I was shooting and then eventually somebody saw my stuff on the Steenbeck and said “Would you come and shoot for me?” and that’s how it all started.
Filmmaker: Did the scope of the project change once it was about Thavi’s family?
Kuras: The scope changed in the sense that I was able to start realizing ideas that I had at the time, because I was writing a lot of poetry and this gave me material that I wanted to work with. It opened up the whole structure of what was possible and also all the stories in a poetic framework. People say to me, “What was it like doing a film over 23 years, and did you anticipate that it would take 23 years?” and I have to say, “No.” In the interim, I didn’t have a firm deadline that I had to respond to and also the film represented to me many different things. In a way, it was my own personal notebook, it was a continuing dialogue with Thavi that we had about life and death and philosophy and everything that was happening in the community and the gangs. It was very enjoyable to be part of that process of making the film, of turning those ideas about themes of honor into the film.
Filmmaker: You’re a very prolific D.P., so how did you approach making this film? Did you simply film whenever you weren’t shooting for somebody else?
Kuras: Yeah, for the most part, whenever I had time, I would work on the film. Whenever I could, every moment I would. There was a period of three or four years where I didn’t work on the film at all because I was really busy doing features back-to-back, but for the most part I did devote a lot of energy to the film on the side. But I’ve been so busy. Many people call me the busiest person they know because I have been really busy and I have shot a lot of things – I shoot commercials in between doing features. So, as I’ve said, it was part of that continuum, a way for me to get back into the space of my own mind and to be working on my own stuff, which enabled me to balance working on stuff for other people.
Filmmaker: What was the point at which you realized you should get the film finished and out into the world?
Kuras: Part of it was that someone came to me and said, “You know that film you’re making, what’s happening to it? I want to help you finish it.” That made all the difference in the world because I had been doing so much of it myself – the financing of it, the producing of it, putting it together – and so to have someone come on board to help me to carry the plan through was enormous and it really did help hugely to get to that next point.
Filmmaker: It seems like the film must have become this enormous life project for you, a little like the play in Synecdoche, New York.
Kuras: People would say, “So, what’s going on with the film?” but eventually they would stop asking me. But my father nagged me incessantly about it: “When are you going to finish that film? When are you going to finish that film? When are you going to finish that film?” I always said, “I’ll finish the film when I’m ready to finish the film.” To be honest, it was like an unfinished term paper and though I was encouraged by my father to move on, I didn’t because I knew the story was way too important to tell to let it languish on shelves. I just knew, no matter how many years had passed, it was really important to get it out and that it was still timely. The fact that I had started it many years ago only lent to its power, because the time showed us how strong the example was and also enabled us to have this incredible [ability to] witness this family drama in a way that most people don’t expect.
Filmmaker: How did things progress to Thavi not only being one of the subjects of the film but your co-director and essentially the main voice in the film?
Kuras: Thavi’s a very incredible person: he’s very insightful and philosophical and I recognized that about him early on, even though his command of English was spotty. I could see that he was literate in many ways, without being literate in English. Through the years, we spent so much time talking and I felt it was really important for him to be recognized as a co-director. There were times when I couldn’t work on the film when he would continue in the editing room and try to carry it on and at least keep the process alive, it being his own story. But it was more than that: he really believed in what we had to say about what was happening in his community, about the gangs, about the more universal stories – the umbilical cord story, releasing the turtle and the themes of returning to nature – that affect us all. He understood that. But I felt it was really important for him to be recognized by his own people. The Lao don’t have a voice, certainly not in the world of cinema and not in documentary, and I felt like it was important to give them a voice.
Filmmaker: Thavi edited the film as well, so were you aware of a struggle on his part to get enough objectivity on the material?
Kuras: There were a couple of moments when I would just take a step back and say, “Wow, this is wild! Here I am holding Thavi’s infant daughter in the editing room while he’s editing and the baby’s great grandmother and grandmother are up on the screen and it’s her story as much as it’s his story.” That Thavi was the editor sometimes made me laugh because we would talk about the story and the characters and he would refer to himself in the third person and say, “Well, when Thavi does this…” and I would just laugh and say, “OK, Thav…” In a way, this could be a story about almost any family; it’s family that goes through a crisis and comes out of it however damaged at the other end so it has very universal qualities. In that respect, it was interesting to have Thavi edit his own story. The biggest thing was, sometimes he wouldn’t want to use a shot because he thought his teeth were too big and I was like, “Whoa, wait a minute… You don’t get to decide that just like I don’t get to decide if that looks like a bad shot or not.”
Filmmaker: I was struck by the amazing job you did with archive footage and b-roll, as every shot seemed very carefully chosen to resonate with whatever is being said at the time.
Kuras: Yeah, we really tried to put it together in terms of the beats of the frame and everything. The archival footage we chose because we felt like it was able to put you in the place of Thavi, the character, and in a way you were vicariously experiencing his memory of it. We found some archival footage of Laos and I managed to pay off the local Pathet Lao guy who was overseeing the archive so he would project for us a couple of Vietnamese propaganda films and it’s from that material that I shot some of the more abstract images like, for example, the trucks going by. The whole story of the trucks, to me, was so important because even with those few abstract images of the trucks and the people going by in the night, it represented any culture where there’s been a military dictatorship and people have been taken away by death squads in the middle of the night. It reminded me of Argentina, it reminded me of when I was in El Salvador and I would actually see them going by.
Filmmaker: You’ve worked for a lot of influential directors during your career but who would you say has taught you the most about directing?
Kuras: I have to say right off the bat, every director is very different in the way that they work and in their point of view. With Spike, it was very interesting because – particularly with films like Summer of Sam – he really encouraged me to follow my intuition and to explore and go for it in a way that was about ideas and the visual images. He presented a lot of challenges to me like the first time I would use two cameras all the time, how to light something where you’re looking almost in every direction. Spike, in that way, was always kind of very encouraging of my muse, like “Follow your muse,” and Michel [Gondry] in an another way was very much about us being in the same world and me understanding what’s in his head so that I could also contribute to that and add to that. Understanding Michel’s way of working is very much like understanding a child who has a pile of colored construction papers with blunt scissors: they start cutting up all these pieces, “Oh, I can glue these three pieces together,” and then all of a sudden they have this incredible garden that they’ve made. I’m always in this process of discovery which I why I still say that being a D.P. is exciting to me and still fresh, because I learn and challenge myself with all the directors I work with.
Filmmaker: What was the first film you ever saw?
Kuras: Aside from the cartoons that I used to watch as a kid, I’d say probably Ben-Hur. I very much remember all of the action scenes in the arena, the close-ups of the hub. I think about that every once in a while: “Isn’t it interesting that they would use that and that it would remain in my visual memory all of these years.” I have these amazing shots of Charlton Heston very much stuck in my head.
Filmmaker: What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen, or had to do yourself, during your time in the film industry?
Kuras: In Eternal Sunshine, being put in the scene. I have to say it was really bizarre being on the other side of the camera because I realized how incredibly difficult as actors to be in their mind’s eye and to become the character in the film. I am so often looking around and being on the other side – if you will, the watchful eye over the actors in the scene – that for me to be on the other side of it, I just couldn’t physically in my mind cross over the line.
Filmmaker: Finally, Should a director always take risks?
Kuras: Of course. Without risks you don’t go anywhere, you don’t learn anything and the movies that have been least enjoyable for me have been the ones that have kind of been by rote. Directors should always explore their boundaries – that’s where really exciting things happen.