It’s a soggy afternoon in late October and Ellen Kuras would love to just curl up in bed and get over the wicked flu bug she has, but there’s just too much to do – including a lengthy phone interview for this piece. However, multitasking has become second nature to Kuras, in fact, she’s made a career out of it.
For 23 years Kuras has not only been working on her debut feature documentary, “The Betrayal,” but also building a coveted career as a cinematographer. This latter note is how you know her work. Lensing indies like “Swoon,” “I Shot Andy Warhol” and “Personal Velocity,” as well as being a continued collaborator with such directors as Michel Gondry and Spike Lee, Kuras has gained the reputation as not only being one of the most sought after cinematographers in the independent film world (she has been awarded Best Dramatic Cinematography at Sundance three times) but high on the list of many Hollywood auteurs.
However, this career may not have been possible if it weren’t for her interest in making documentaries after graduating from Brown University in the early ’80s, where she studied social anthropology with a special interest in Native Americans. Studying how a certain meaning can be created through the moving image, Kuras wanted to not only make films about social issues that moved her but do it in a way where the visuals outweighed what was being said. “From my early exposure to film I was very interested in experimental film and how it would tend to be very personal,” Kuras says. “That always stuck in my mind so when I was thinking about this film I wanted to try to find a place where I could make it almost feel like one was vicariously living the experience of the protagonist.”
In “The Betrayal” (known as “Nerakhoon” – the Laotian translation for betrayal – at its Sundance Film Festival premiere earlier this year), Kuras chronicles the life of Thavisouk Phrasavath and his family as they attempt for a better life in the U.S. after being forced to leave their home country of Laos following the American withdrawal after the Vietnam War (to this day the U.S. has never admitted to having had troops in Laos). With his father taken by the Communist Pathet Lao for being part of the CIA-trained Royal Army during the war, Thavisouk (Thavi, for short) tries to play the family patriarch as they travel to America, hoping to find solace in the country their father believed in. Instead, they end up in a drug infested apartment building in Brooklyn, confronting gang violence, family turmoil and the surprise return of their father.
Like the Native Americans, Kuras found similarities in the Lao people’s spirituality and attachment to nature and wanted to shed light on a culture unknown to Americans while giving the Lao a voice in their historical struggle. But after spending a year with a different family in Rochester, New York she realized the story wasn’t there. She soon found a kinship with the person giving her lessons on how to speak Laotian: Thavisouk Phrasavath. “The first moment I met her I felt like I knew her my whole life,” Phrasavath says. “We immediately clicked spiritually first and then philosophically and we spent a lot of time in the beginning talking about world views but in very spiritual, abstract terms and at one point she asked, ‘Can I record this?’ and that became the film.”
With Kuras’s interest of melding narrative and documentary with Lao proverbs, she was faced with her first challenge as a cinematographer: how to put the audience in Phrasavath’s point of view? Having had no experience as a shooter when she began the film in 1984, she hired a commercial cinematographer but quickly found in the dailies that he wasn’t getting what she wanted. She then decided to pick up the camera. “I wanted to make relationships happen between people in a scene and try to reveal the scene in a way that told the story in itself,” she says. “Using the camera as a visual metaphor and having each shot have a beginning, middle and an end. But I didn’t really verbalize that because I didn’t know how to explain it, so that’s why I picked up the camera, to try and understand that myself.” Thinking back on her early footage, Kuras cringes recalling shots with bad lighting and other elementary mistakes, but what came out of that exploration was the aesthetic of the film: a narrative poem.
At the same time Kuras was finding the right path for her film, people in New York started taking notice of her creative eye behind the camera. Producing Tom Kalin’s debut feature, “Swoon,” Christine Vachon passed him the short documentary, “Samsara: Death and Rebirth in Cambodia,” which Kuras shot. “There is such a lyricism and a beautiful simplicity and sensitivity in her photography,” says Kalin, who hired Kuras to be his cinematographer. “And then I met her and like all D.P.’s she was interested in image and lighting, but also as much in story and how the image told a story.” The film would go on to premiere at Sundance in 1992 where Kuras received her first Cinematography Award at the festival, giving her notoriety within the industry and a way to continue to finance “The Betrayal.”
“I had run out of money,” says Kuras, remembering one of the low points when she had to sell her 35mm camera so she could spend another month on the project. Her longest hiatus came in the late ’90s when she took a few years off to shoot studio films like “The Mod Squad,” “Blow” and “Analyze That.” “I just had to put it aside. But coming back to the film was a special place in my life and it always helped to keep me grounded. But I’ll be honest with you, I felt I really needed to get the film done, it was just difficult to find the time.”
She soon found help from the most unlikely of people: her subject. Though the film is about Phrasavath’s family, Kuras encouraged him to be involved in all aspects (including filming the return of his father on a VHS camcorder when she couldn’t be there). So when one of the many editors who were involved couldn’t make it to the edit room they rented, Phrasavath gave it a try. “Ellen was shooting a Pepsi commercial in L.A.,” says Phrasavath, “so I asked someone next door to teach me the basics and I made my first montage. It’s the escape scene and it’s still in the movie.” Kuras loved what Phrasavath put together and not only gave him an editor credit but co-director.
Humility is one of Kuras’s greatest traits. When asked how she can put aside the ego that comes with being a director and share the credit she answers modestly: “I consider myself as someone who tries to downplay my own ego. What’s important is the work and the overriding message and one of my goals was to be able to let Thavi and the Lao people speak.” Phrasavath says this generosity is what made Kuras more than just a filmmaker in his families’ eyes. “To my mother Ellen is like her daughter, she has become a member of the family,” he says. “She spent the time to learn the culture and the language and understand the emotion of the people, going beyond just knowing the film’s subject.”
But three years ago Kuras finally made the decision to clear her schedule and complete the film. To the prompting of producer Flora Fernandez-Marengo, Kuras declined D.P. offers, including those from marquee names such as Jim Sheridan, Paul Weitz and Sydney Pollack, which she confesses was one of the hardest judgments she’s ever made. “It was like daggers in me, to see these opportunities slip through my fingers. But in the end it was all worth it.”
After finishing a cut, Kuras and Phrasavath were invited by the Sundance Institute’s documentary film program director Cara Mertes to take part in the Sundance Documentary Edit and Story Lab. Through the input there the two realized the film’s potential. “‘The Betrayal’ really is a film in a category by itself,” says Mertes who is also an executive producer on the film. “I don’t expect to see another documentary like it in scope, ambition and accomplishment.” At the Lab they found the film’s unique structure. Placing the viewer inside Phrasavath’s mind as he travels back to Laos to visit the sisters who stayed behind, he recounts his life in flashbacks. With beautiful lasting images like children playing with water buffalos in the golden sun drenched Mekong River in Laos to shaky, hand held VHS footage of Kuras and Phrasavath rescuing a family from certain death by the hands of a Brooklyn gang, Kuras often does not tell us what year we’re in or where we are (though sometimes Phrasavath’s voiceover sets the stage), instead it’s a lyrical, organic journey that each viewer experiences differently.
The film’s sense of dreamscape is elevated with the inclusion of a moving score by Howard Shore. “Thelma Schoonmaker was one of our greatest cheerleaders and she sent the film to Howard and he called me and said he loved the film and would like to compose the music,” Kuras recalls. “He did a tremendous amount of research into Lao music and he created the first ever Lao chorus.”
Though the score was only fragmented in the version shown at Sundance, that didn’t matter to Samuel Goldwyn Films, which wanted to buy the film later at the Berlin International Film Festival. But Kuras didn’t think it was right to sell the film with an unfinished score. “We wanted to give Howard the chance to be able to do it the way he wanted rather than being rushed.” Fortunately, The Cinema Guild bought the film, which Kuras thought was a perfect fit as they are setting up an educational component to the release so students can learn one of the unknown tragedies of the Vietnam War. “These people from Laos have come here and yet they’re not officially recognized for why they came here,” Kuras says. “I found that completely outrageous and was another instance where American foreign policy leaves long lasting scars on the people.” Phrasavath puts the film in perspective. “I’ve been able to become a filmmaker, the first Laotian filmmaker,” he says. “Now I’m a role model for the youth and that’s because Ellen, as a good American, felt obligated to do something because people would never know the truth. I believe this was all done by destiny.”
With “The Betrayal” come and gone from theaters and now nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary, the end is within sight and though that’s hard for Kuras to image (she says she’s in no rush to direct another film), when asked what she’s going to do now with her free time between shooting films she can’t name just one thing. “I’ve started to read books again, I’m really looking forward to go to museums and movies and…”
She still will have a lot of multitasking to do.