No Direction Home

A Laotian refugee struggles with family and country in The Betrayal

Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque 8:50 p.m. Thursday, April 23 7:30 p.m. Friday, April 24
The title of the Oscar-nominated documentary The Betrayal refers to the Americans who let down the Laotian soldiers who helped fight their secret war in the '70s. It also refers to a Laotian fighter who turns his back on his family after being MIA for 15 years. And it refers to that soldier's betrayal of his country, which he helped destroy.

Shot over 23 years, The Betrayal (Nerakhoon) tells the story of Thavisouk Phrasavath (Thavi, for short), a Laotian refugee who left his homeland when he was 13, eventually settling in Brooklyn. In the opening scenes, Thavi (who co-directs, narrates and sits in front of the camera) recounts a typical childhood stroll past wounded soldiers in war-torn Laos: "I thought killing and dying was a normal thing," he says.

Newsreel footage unspools as details are paraded across the screen: "During the Vietnam war, the neutral kingdom of Laos became a base for an illegal secret air war in Southeast Asia." "The CIA financed and armed the royal Laos government and created its own secret guerilla army." When the Americans retreated from Laos, the U.S.-backed regime fell, and Laotian military men were sent to re-education camps.

That's where Thavi's tale turns personal. His dad was one of those U.S.-backed soldiers. When the CIA left the country after bombing the hell out of it, they neither acknowledged nor helped the left-behind combatants. Thavi's dad was carted away in 1975, leaving his mom and nine siblings alone.

Neighbors wanted nothing to do with them, and they feared for their lives. "We became the enemy," recalls Thavi's mom. Thavi escaped one night and lived on the streets of Bangkok for two years, waiting for the rest of his family to join him.

Eventually, his mom made it out of Laos with all but two of her kids, and they applied for political asylum in the U.S. They're relocated to N.Y.C. and tossed into a cramped apartment with no money and no food, except for a few grains of rice (but no pot to cook them in).

The movie includes footage of Thavi from 1985 with long hair — smoking, drinking and hanging out with friends. But as this engaging film makes clear, he's no street thug. He's a smart, articulate young man who watches over his family. He learns English. And he begins to piece together his family's, and his country's, torn past.

The Betrayal documents Thavi's coming to terms with the betrayals: by the United States ("Life in America was hell on Earth," his mom says), his dad (turns out he didn't die in that re-education camp) and his own country. Despite all this, there's reconciliation at the end — with family, with nation and with Thavi's role within them. There's peace of sorts, for the land and the man who's experienced much turmoil over the past 40 years.

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