February 1st, 2008 | Published in Media & Film
By Siamphone Louankang
Thavisouk Phrasavath (Thavi for short) came to the United States as a refugee of the Vietnam War like most Laotian Americans. His father, an officer in the Royal Lao Army, was sent to “seminar” (re-education prison camp) by the new communist government. Because of their close connection to the failed regime, Thavi’s family had no choice but to leave Laos. He swam across the Mekong River to reach the refugee camps in Thailand, first staying at Napo, then Ubon. Thavi’s mother and remaining siblings followed two years later, only to meet with a misfortune that would take them over a decade to rectify. Offered just one opportunity to leave, Thavi’s mother had very little time to gather together what remained of her family and quickly flee. Two daughters, ages 14 and 2, were not at home and could not be immediately found…
“Nerakhoon” is the documentary story of the Phrasavath family’s experience leaving home, coming to a new country and relating to what they left behind. Collaborating with experienced cinematographer-director Ellen Kuras (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Blow, Summer of Sam), Thavi wears many hats: film subject, co-director and main editor. This January I traveled to Park City, Utah to join Thavi, his family and the documentary team for the film’s premier at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival. It was Thavi’s desire to share with Lao Roots Magazine a first hand experience of the renowned independent film festival because, he insists, “I don’t want to be the first and only — I know that if I can get this far, the younger generation of Laotian American’s can go much further.”
The completion of the documentary has been a long journey, with nearly 23 years in the making. At the pre-screening party a mixture of excitement and relief filled the restaurant. When asked how he felt about finally reaching the finish, Thavi compared the process to raising a child, nurturing and grooming it, and now letting it out into the world, stating: “We have worked very hard for a long time and I hope that our offspring will be well received.” Unrelenting producer and attorney Wilder Knight continued working through the celebration lunch, reviewing agreements and meticulously analyzing the fine print for the film’s debut. Tickets to the premier were entirely sold out weeks in advance.
On the day of the screening I waited in the theater “green room” while the co-directors and producers anxiously paced in and out, alternating phone calls with last minute press photographs. Nervous tension seemed to be at an all time high, but apart from minor concerns over sound quality, the team remained confident. Due to the epic nature of the project, spanning over two decades, individual clips were shot with different cameras and various film types over time. The final product was ultimately pulled together in premium high definition format. Musical advisors included respected Laotian artists Voradeth Ditthavong and Phone Phoumithone. The highly experienced documentary team hailed from as far as Argentina and Switzerland. Producer Flora Fernandez-Marengo was up late the night before going over final administrative details and was ready to finish the last leg of what seemed like a marathon. For sound engineer Benny Mouthon (who has mixed numerous TV shows, documentaries, commercials and films) his 15 year journey with the team was worth every moment and he was excited to finally showcase their efforts.
Sundance organizers ushered a capacity crowd into the 448 seats of the classic Library Center Theater. After a brief introduction the lights dimmed and the audience was immediately transported more than 30 years back in time. Juxtaposing never before seen historic clips with candid personal interviews and poetic narratives, the richly crafted film drew a full range of emotions from the crowd.
Although the film was shot throughout both the United States and Laos, the images of traditional religious ceremonies and heavy metal hairdos of the 1980s were immediately familiar to fellow Laotian American and Utah resident Nikki Khonesavanh. “I connected with the film on an intimate level,” said Nikki, “I cried because I understood the struggle, I smiled when I saw our culture and customs in motion and in the end I was filled with joy that the story of our people were told.”
Thavi was born in the town of Thakhek in Khammouane province, but later moved with his family to Pakse to be near his father’s military post in the province of Attapeu. While young Americans were enjoying the Summer of Love, the CIA was funding an intense bombing campaign in the hills of southeastern Laos, the main artery of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Although no official war was declared, tens of thousands of Laotian soldiers were directly funded by the U.S. to deter the advance of the North Vietnamese communists into the south. After the American withdrawal from region and the fall of Saigon, the communist forces in Laos swept into power and forced their former rivals out. The resulting exodus resulted in nearly a 10 percent total population loss, and by some estimates 90 percent of the country’s educated elite. Thavi points out that his family’s story is just one of many similar Laotian stories. In the face of the tremendous political changes, there were few choices left.
“Nerakhoon,” Thavi explains, “is when someone has done a good deed and you have forgotten.” The documentary focuses on betrayal on several levels: between family members, between countries, between an individual and his heritage. Also underlying the story is a philosophical world view which Thavi discovered in a long forgotten Laotian prophesy — a prophesy which, as he points out, has many similarities to those of other cultures. Although the film is a personal narrative, Thavi feels that it can serve as a universal one as well. Ellen’s brother, Jeffrey Kuras explained to me why the project was so important to the director: “Our family immigrated from Poland before World War I and went through a difficult period of transition. None of my grandparents ever returned, even for a visit, partially because of the difficulties caused by the Iron Curtain. My father’s father in particular always wanted to move back. Letters were exchanged between our family in America and the relatives back in Europe up until the 1950’s, but they were all destroyed. Ellen deeply regretted not having a record of our family history, and she observed the persistent sadness of my grandfather.”
Despite amount of work he has put into the making of the documentary, Thavi points out that he came upon the project by pure chance. Thavi and his family found themselves in Brooklyn, New York in 1982. They had been sponsored by a church group that he says essentially “ripped them off.” His family was left to share a run-down apartment with several other refugee families and almost no support, financial or otherwise. Help eventually came in the form of welfare checks and foodstamps. Thavi eventually finished high school and went on to study engineering. It was two years after his arrival in the U.S. that his cousin approached him about teaching Laotian to a woman who was interested in interviewing elderly lowland Lao to learn their history. Ellen Kuras was working on a script about a Laotian Family in Rochester, New York and ultimately asked Thavi to assist with the project. After about two months into the project, the main subject no longer wanted to participate and Ellen then turned to Thavi.
Thavi describes his early years in America as bad, going on worse. He recalls the frustrations he felt being called a “chink”. He found himself trying to fit it by dressing and trying to be like the “homeboys” in order to “camouflage” his identity, but soon realized it did not make a difference. It is this experience of prejudice that continues to motivate his work. “Laotians in America,” he laments, “are almost mythical, as if we don’t even exist.” Like so many refugees, Thavi wants people in America to know that he did not come here to steal jobs. “We did not leave our homes willingly to come here,” he argues, “we were forced to leave and had no choice.” Reflecting on the countless unexploded ordnances that still dot the open fields in Laos, he also wants Americans to know what role this country has played. Thavi explains that his interest in film and media in general is its power to educate and inform. He is confident that mass media is the best means of overcoming prejudice and wants Laotians to have a voice in the media. In an interview with BBC World, Thavi shared his hope that his work could send a message of both political awareness and compassion.
“I’m 1500% Buddhist,” declares Thavi. Beginning his immigrant life in America translating for the Laotian Community, Thavi helped diverse Laotian ethnic groups obtain social services and became a representative Laotian speaker in New York City. He has consulted for the Board of Education and city social events. He is not certain how people in Laos will receive the film. He points out that as an artist, he wants to present his authentic experience. Although he did not set out to make a political film, it is impossible separate politics from to the spirit of the times. Yet, karma seems to have come full circle. The film’s Sundance premier received a roaring applause and standing ovation from the audience, with almost everybody remaining for the enthusiastic post-screening question and answer session. There are plans for a national theater release and PBS/POV has already secured rights to broadcast the documentary in over 500 channels. With the amount of enthusiasm surrounding the film, Thavi is hoping an Academy Award nomination may be even been on the horizon and exclaims, “I am very proud of this opportunity to represent the Laotian people.”
As I was leaving the Sundance Film Festival, Thavi called to wish me a safe flight home and share some heartfelt words: “You guys at Lao Roots Magazine are doing a great job. It’s important for our community to share important events with one another, to inspire each other, and show that with hard work and persistence we can achieve our dreams.”
Find more about Nerakhoon at http://www.thebetrayalmovie.com/.
A version of this article appears in Lao Roots Magazine issue #4 (2008).