Understandably, you've never heard of Thavisouk "Thavi" Phrasavath (pictured above). He's not famous and he's not trying to be. He's just a normal guy living his life in America. Heck, I walked by the guy a couple weeks ago and thought nothing of it. The southeast Asian population (Hmong, Lao, Vietnamese) here in the Twin Cities is quite prominent, and Phrasavath is not the type of person who would draw attention to himself.
Which is outrageous, because attention needs to be paid. Nerakhoon (The Betrayal), is Thavi's story, and it's unlike almost any documentary you've seen before - not because of what you see, but because of how you see it. Thavi's life, while undoubtedly remarkable, is still just one of countless similar stories from immigrants and refugees from around the world. But how often do you see a refugee's life over the course of 23 years?
Thavi's father was a high-ranking military official in Laos who helped support covert American operations during the Vietnam War. When the U.S. withdrew, they provided no security for their local operatives, who were immediately branded as traitors by the new government. Thavi's father split, while Thavi himself swam across a river and lived in a Thai refugee camp until his mother and five siblings found him two years later. With no home to return to, the family hoped the U.S. would provide a safe haven in appreciation for the family's allegiance to them during the war. Indeed, America opened the door...to the dirtiest and most dangerous neighborhood in Brooklyn. It was 1985, and an amateur filmmaker named Ellen Kuras (now an award-winning cinematographer) was learning Lao as part of her preparation for a film about the Lao people. She met Thavi, decided to turn the camera on his family, and started filming.
More than two decades later, we have The Betrayal, a stunning directorial debut and an unflinching look at not just immigrant life in America, but the incredible character of one young man whose life is marked by betrayal at every turn: two countries turned their back on him and his father abandoned the family. Nobody can give Thavi Phrasavath any years of his life back, but, at the very least, he's deserving of an audience for his story. The Betrayal is currently on the festival circuit after premiering to glowing reviews at Sundance 2008 in January. Kuras and Phrasavath were also winners of the "Emerging Director - Documentary" award at the 2008 Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival. If The Betrayal never makes it to you, watch for it in the 2009 P.O.V. season on PBS, for which it's already been confirmed.