Although it was mostly lost in the blitz of media coverage focusing on the intrigue surrounding the death of Michael Jackson, the death of Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense under President Kennedy and one of the architects of the Vietnam War, brought renewed attention to the consequences of that war. Although McNamara’s position in history remains controversial, he has often been relatively frank in analyzing his actions, admitting, for example, that if the U.S. had lost World War II, he and General Curtis LeMay likely would have been tried as war criminals for the fire-bombing of a number of Japanese cities. As Errol Morris observed in a recent interview about his relationship with McNamara, addressing these issues brings us to “the realization that nothing can really erase that history.”
I found myself thinking about these issues as I watched Ellen Kuras and Thavisouk Phrasavath’s lyrical,visually stunning documentary, The Betrayal: Nerakhoon (IMDB), which revisits the effects of the Vietnam War on the neighboring country of Laos, looking at that history primarily through the lens of a single family. Phrasavath, the son of a Laotian soldier who worked with the U.S Army, retells his and his family’s experiences, describing his and his family’s escape from Laos, first into Thailand, and later into the United States. His mother also recalls that she was forced to leave two of her children behind because she feared that her other seven children might be endangered and that she assumed her husband had been killed by the opposition army. Later, it is revealed that he was merely sent for “reeducation” and had, in fact, immigrated to the United States where he had remarried and fathered two children in addition to his original family. And although the film is explicit in associating the “betrayal” of the film’s title with the United States’ betrayal of the Laotian army, by the end of the film, it becomes clear that members of the Phrasavath family have suffered a series of betrayals and difficulties dating back to the war itself.
Kuras and Phrasavath tell this story not in a linear fashion but in a series of associative links, evoking the past through stock footage of Nixon and JFK speeches, US plans dropping bombs on Indochina, and photographs from Laos’s distant past and suggesting the complicated relationship between personal and official histories and the effects of the war on one individual family, recalling in some ways (for me at least) Rea Tajiri’s experimental documentary, History and Memory, which focused on her family’s experiences in the Japanese internment camps in California during World War II. But, in addition to these compelling visual images and an innovative storytelling structure, Kuras and Phrasavath (with whom Kuras worked on the film for over twenty years) also offer a poignant picture of a family who endured one of the more neglected strains of the Vietnam War, revealing the human costs of McNamara’s “rational” approach to war.
The Betrayal aired on PBS’s POV series earlier this week, but the POV website raises some interesting questions about documentary, including the implications of inviting the subject to collaborate in the making of the film.