Friday, January 25, 2008

The Best Movie We May Never See

One of the reasons that I maintain an RSS feed for the film reviews on Variety is that they give me a chance to read about the films that no one else takes the trouble to cover. Even when a film gets screened at the Sundance Festival, as is the case with the review I just read, the sheer volume of the Sundance program means that much of that program is likely to slip through the cracks. However, Variety is a "trade publication," which means that distributors can count on it to let them know all of their options and offer up a bread-and-butter account of each option, rather than an extended essay that shows off how much the reviewer has learned about film theory. Since I am not "in the trade," though, I derive an entirely different benefit from these reviews, which is that they give me a chance to refute Walter Benjamin.

In was Benjamin, after all, in his essay on the works of Nikolai Leskov (entitled "The Storyteller"), who had declared (in 1936) that "the art of storytelling is coming to an end;" and, on this morning when San Francisco Chronicle Movie Critic Mick LaSalle seems primarily occupied with the complementary nature of the personalities of Rocky Balboa and John Rambo, it is not that difficult to appreciate what was bothering Benjamin some seventy years ago. It is only by seeking out such things as the films that fall through the cracks of the commercial production and distribution processes that we can see that, even if the art of storytelling has suffered no end of neglect, it is still far from dead; and Variety is one of the best windows available for keeping track of what has fallen through those cracks. So it is that I encountered a review of The Betrayal (Nerakhoon), a joint project directed and written by Ellen Kuras and Thavisouk Phrasavath. Kuras is primarily a cinematographer; and I first encountered her work when I saw Unzipped, Douglas Keeve's excellent documentary about Isaac Mizrahi and the nature of work in the world of high fashion. Like Kuras, Phrasavath has an IMDB page; but it is nowhere near as interesting as the account given by Variety reviewer Scott Foundas:

Back in Laos, Phrasavath's father had worked for the CIA choosing targets inside the country for U.S. bombing runs. Following the fall of the CIA-backed Royal Lao Army to the Communist Pathet Lao in 1975, the Phrasavaths became personae non grata, with Thavi's father being shipped off to a re-education camp and his mother fleeing the country with eight of her 10 children in tow.

After a brief period in Thailand, the family applies for asylum in the U.S. and lands on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn, where their vision of a gold-paved promised land quickly gives way to the harsh realities of poverty, street gangs and a cramped tenement apartment shared with a Cambodian family of six.

Kuras had originally contacted Phrasavath to serve as a Lao tutor for a documentary she was planning about a Lao refugee family; but her appreciation for that art of storytelling alerted her to the fact that Phrasavath, himself, was an excellent subject. So began the project that resulted in The Betrayal. Those results interest me for two reasons.

First of all, one of the side-effects of my time in Singapore, which I neglected to mention in my recent account of "non-Western modernization," was the wealth of opportunities it offered for learning more about and visiting those countries that provided such a great embarrassment in foreign affairs: Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. I visited both Cambodia and Vietnam while living in Singapore and engaged the skills I had acquired from those trips in planning a trip to Laos after I had returned to the United States. Indeed, had I not acquired the basic skills of getting around in Vietnam and Cambodia by hiring a car and driver, I probably would not have appreciated that the easiest way to get from Laos to Vietnam was overland, since going by air involved a Byzantine chain of transfers involving both Phnompenh and Bangkok; and, had I not ridden the highway that descended from the terraced highlands of Vietnam along the Laotian border into Hue, I would have missed the opportunity to see the memorial erected at Khesanh, best described as a "fiasco" in Stanley Karnow's history of the Vietnam War. Put another way, this was the land of Presidential decision-making at its worst, at least until 9/11. Whether it was stopping to survey the grounds of Khesanh, driving across the Ho Chi Minh Trail, or seeing the building that used to be the American Embassy in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), from which we saw all that news footage of desperate evacuations, these visits taught me as much about American history as those trips to Independence Hall and Valley Forge. Like it or not, we owe it to ourselves as American citizens to see what we look like through the other end of the telescope.

This bring me to my second reason, which is what actually resulted from the collaboration between Kuras and Phrasavath. Here is the core of the description (in Foundas' Variety-speak, an argot I am pleased to see is still maintained):

The wounds inflicted by the U.S. military's covert Vietnam-era operations in Laos still run deep, as evidenced by "The Betrayal" ("Nerakhoon"), which details one Lao family's harrowing efforts to start a new life in America. More than two decades in the making, this heartfelt debut docu feature by veteran cinematographer Ellen Kuras brings an affecting personal dimension to a sprawling sociopolitical narrative, intimately detailing how the agendas designed to advance the interests of nations can destroy individual lives.

At a time when we seem to do all we can to avoid thinking about consequences, whether in our own get-rich-quick greed or in the more august settings of the World Economic Forum, it is important that the art of storytelling is still alive enough to remind us of how trying to change the world only makes matters worse. Indeed, there is a certain irony that Sundance should be turning its attention to Southeast Asia at the same time that the World Economic Forum is convening in Davos. After all, Henry Kissinger is still wanted as a war criminal by the Cambodian government; yet there he was on television (at least on the BBC), fat, happy, and introducing Pervez Musharraf (also fat but apparently not very happy), seemingly oblivious to the many charges of blood on his hands.

Needless to say, we should not be holding our breaths for a chance to see The Betrayal "coming to a theater near you." Regardless of any Chomskyan arguments of "manufacturing consent," this film is unlikely to figure in what Edward Jay Epstein has called "The New Logic of Money and Power in Hollywood." The good news is that the Sundance Channel has become one of the best places to see documentaries on cable. I have no idea whether or not Sundance Festival exposure can lead to an inside track on Sundance Channel programming; but, hopefully, support from Variety will help step in that direction. Meanwhile, we may just have to count on the blogosphere to "build the buzz." If the conferees of Davos persist in their fiddling, we owe it to ourselves to be aware of where things are burning.

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