EDITORS NOTE: This is part of a series of interviews, conducted via email, profiling first-time feature directors who have films screening at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival.
With the rise of a communist government in Laos, lillings and arrests became common among those afflicted with the former govenrment and the Americans. Families were torn apart — some finally emigrating to the U.S. Spanning 20 years, vet D.P. Ellen Kuras debuts her first directorial effort “Nerakhoon (The Betrayal)”with Laotian co-director Thavisouk Phrasavath, who is the main subject of the film. The Sundance Film Festival‘s Cara Mertes comments in this year’s fest catalog, “‘Nerakhoon (The Betrayal)’ is an exquisitely crafted tale about a country, a family, and a young man who discovers the power and resilience of the human spirit. The film is screening in SFF’s documentary competition.
Please introduce yourself…
Hi, I’m Ellen Kuras, Director of Photography for dramatic films, commercials, documentaries and music films–a career which started in photography at RISD (Rhode Island School of Design) and in social anthropology at Brown University. When I first starting in the film world, I was interested in the message of film, particularly in political documentaries, yet it seems like I’ve branched out a bit by shooting films such as “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” “Be Kind Rewind,” “Blow, Summer of Sam,” “Swoon,” “Four Little Girls,” “Personal Velocity,” and “Heart of Gold.” What an amazing and enriching experience it’s been to work with so many different directors with such diverse points of view. Though I currently live in the New York area, I’m usually on the road, working on various projects all around the world.
My latest film, “Nerakhoon (The Betrayal),” is actually the project that started me out as a cinematographer. I had started solely as the director but later decided that I would try to shoot the film myself. It is the culmination of years of thought and writing in collaboration with Thavi (Thavisouk) Phrasavath, who not only is the main subject but who also became co-director.
What attracted you to filmmaking?
During my second year at Brown University in 1979, I happened to take a photography class at the Rhode Island School of Design which changed my life. I discovered light, a way of seeing the world through a viewfinder and onto paper. Though I knew that films could influence the way that a person sees the world, I had never thought of myself as one who could actually MAKE those images — and ultimately, those messages — until I took that class. From then on, I was interested in propaganda how propaganda works, how we perceive the world visually (and in film, audibly) in both photography and film. At the time, I was also writing a lot of poetry, and combining all of these interests naturally pointed to film. But getting into film was a different story. It wasn’t an easy road in, not at that time — and still isn’t now, as many can attest.
I started out by interning at a museum during my last year at Brown, where I organized film series, exhibitions, poetry readings and music series. Most events revolved around cultural groups in the Providence area, particularly recent immigrants like the South East Asians — which is how I got to know the Lao and the Cambodian communities. After school I worked as an associate producer, an assistant cameraperson on docs, and as an electrician on dramatic films (so that I could learn how to light).
What prompted the idea for “Nerakhoon (The Betrayal)” and how did it evolve?
I knew that I wanted to make a film about the lowland Lao people — not the Hmong — because their story had not yet been told whereas the Hmong, the Khmer, and the Vietnamese had already had several films made about their experiences during and after the war.
I came to know a Lao family in Rochester, NY, with whom I first started collaborating on a film. But in deciding to learn Lao I met Thavi, who came to my New York apartment to teach me twice a week. Soon I turned the camera on him and his family. Their story was not only incredibly compelling, but Thavi was and still is an insightful thinker, and he recounted many stories that were part of the Lao worldview and philosophy. I was more interested in making a true Film — a film poem about war, history, philosophy and the Lao part in world history – than I was in making a straight-forward, conventional cinema-verite documentary. The form of the film was one that emerged over time.
Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film…
During the early stages of the film, when it was about a different family in Rochester, I struggled with the fact that I wasn’t able to elicit a certain kind of depth in the material. I wanted to get to the subtext of their story — whatever that story would evolve to be — and have it speak on a universal level so that others could identify with them as characters and with their situation. The ideas that I wanted to bring to the forefront of the film were thematic – betrayal, loss of identity, loss of values and the loss of self — themes embedded in the everyday workings of a family but not easily captured on film. Thavi changed all of that. He innately understood what I was searching for in this film and was able to be a part of it as both a subject and co-author. We carried on for years on this project because we believed, and still strongly believe, in what “Nerakhoon (The Betrayal)” has to say.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in either developing the project or making the movie?
The biggest challenge for me was working on this film while needing to take on other projects in order to pay for it. During times that we could hire an editor to help guide us, I would have to be away working like a maniac in order to pay for the editor, the filmstock and processing, and in order to keep shooting. Some well-timed grants and funding assistance from The Sundance Doc fund helped enormously in allowing me to spend time in the editing room, or shooting whenever I could. Time spent in the editing room was particularly invaluable. Other challenges were securing a sound person who could be with me while I hung out with the family. Often I couldn’t afford to have someone, so I would be recording sound, shooting 16mm film, and loading the magazines myself. Thavi was not only the subject of the film, but also translator, cohort and production assistant!
What are your specific goals for the Sundance Film Festival?
To enable people to see the film and to get the word out. It’s a film that needs to be seen, as Peter Gabriel said, “by everyone in the world.” We want to find a distributor who is passionate about the film and who will work with us to make sure it gets seen not only by film audiences but also by the general public. The few to whom we’ve shown the film have sent email after email saying how deeply it has moved them, and that the film stays with them long after seeing it.
What are some of your favorites, if you wish to share that?
I’ve always been a big fan of Tarkovsky films, Bergman, Terrence Malick.
As for Thavi, you’d have to ask him — he prefers comedies, if you can believe that! He used to be a huge fan of Benny Hill…
How do you define success as a filmmaker? What are your personal goals as a filmmaker going forward?
My success as a filmmaker is defined by how much my work can move an audience and make them reflect upon their own lives.
Are there any upcoming projects you’re willing to divulge?
I am starting to DP and direct commercials and have been offered several projects to develop as a director. Although I’ve been approached about directing, I wanted to first finish NERAKHOON before embarking on another directorial endeavor. This spring, I’m going to shoot Sam Mendes‘ next film “This Must Be the Place,” written by Dave Eggers.
And what is your take on the state of independent film today..?
It’s in crisis. With the huge megafilms being financed today by the studios, there are fewer films being made in the 10-15 million dollar range. It’s getting increasingly harder for directors to finance their projects without having to attach big name actors – that is, someone who pulls in a certain amount at the box office. Several directors I know have had to compromise significantly on their project budgets because of this constraint, which leaves little room for new talent to emerge. Good thing that films like “Little Miss Sunshine” continue to be made and get recognized.