I’m choosing to discuss two strikingly different films at the same time for reasons that will become apparent in a bit. Nerakhoon (The Betrayal) is in the documentary competition the same as Traces of the Trade and they share significant attributes: both are deeply personal films told from the perspective of the director and with the director as the main character and narrator. The film is in Lao with English subtitles.
Nerakhoon (The Betrayal) follows Thavisouk Phrasavath and his family from the early 1970’s in Laos during the Viet Nam War up through today. Part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail wound through Laos. In order to disrupt its use as a supply line for the Viet Cong, the United States–with strong support from the Laotian government then in power–dropped three million tons of bombs on Laos by 1973 (more than all the bombs used in both world wars). Thavisouk is one of ten children who were living with their parents in Laos at that time.
When the war ended and the United States departed (the title refers to the betrayal Laotians felt by the United States in setting them up to believe they had a long-term ally who instead disappeared suddenly and completely), a new communist government came into power and those connected with the former government–including Thavisouk’s father–were sent to “re-education camps.” Many were never seen again. At age 10 Thavisouk swam across a wide river separating Laos and Thailand. For the next 2 years he lived on the streets of Thailand for survival. Eventually his mother was able to escape Laos. With virtually no time to prepare, she escaped on a leaking boat with seven of her remaining children. Two additional daughters were with their grandmother at the time and were left behind. Eventually, Thavisouk, his mother, and seven siblings emigrated to the United States and settled in squalid conditions in New York City. A new war erupted for them as gang violence in New York greatly impacted their lives.
Eventually reconnected with a father they thought was long-dead, and two sisters who still live in Laos, and the loss of one sibling to gang violence, the final quarter of the movie filled me with the sadness of separation, death, and loss due to war and other forms of oppression, intolerance, and fear.
CSNY: Deja Vu focuses on Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young’s 2006 “Freedom of Speech” tour. They were joined by Mike Cerre, a reporter who has been embedded with U.S. troops several times in both Iraq and Afghanistan in recent years, who co-wrote the documentary with Neil Young. The film intersperses footage from the late 60’s and early 70’s as CSNY and many other musicians spoke–and sang–their protest of our involvement in the Viet Nam War. The “Deja Vu” in the title refers to more than their song and album of the same name. As a country at war we have been here before.
The power of the film is that anyone who thinks they are going on a nostalgia trip with a favorite old band is in for a pointed surprise. This is a film focused sharply on our present day circumstances. CSNY: Deja Vu is very much a call to activism against the war in Iraq and to pay attention to history and learn from it. Songs from Neil Young’s recent album Living With War provide the core message for the tour and film. I believe it was David Crosby who says in the film that the band isn’t a democracy. It’s a benevolent dictatorship led by Neil Young. That is clear in the film.
All four band mates were present along with members of their family and others who appear in the film. At the Q&A following the film a gentleman several rows behind me spoke first. He said that his brother was a soldier who had been killed in Iraq. “Neil, you make great music but you don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I know that,” said Neil. “I have complete respect for you and your family and what you have experienced.” He appeared pained and deeply sincere as he spoke.
A gentleman a couple seats down from me then said, “I think you do know what you’re talking about and I wonder what you think we can do to make a difference?”
Neil looked once again at the first questioner and said, “I think you’re right,” and then looking at the man near me, “and I think you’re right. What we’re trying to do is get people to talk, that’s all.”
It was a powerful moment to experience. Make no mistake. This is an anti-war film. Living With War is a pointed, clear, and controversial album. There is no ambiguity in the message in his song “Let’s Impeach the President.” One of the Iraq War veterans who appears in the film was present and was asked, “Are you an anti-war activist now?” He paused for a moment before answering, “Yes.” He said that no one should have to experience what he experienced in war.
Anyone who has read this blog for awhile knows that my sister-in-law, Heidi Kraft, wrote a book about her experiences as a clinical psychologist stationed in Iraq. I don’t know how Heidi feels about the war in Iraq. We have not discussed it. I do now how she feels about her fellow soldiers in Iraq. Feelings about the war are deeply felt, my own included. The reason I chose to write about Nerakhoon (The Betrayal) and CSNY: Deja Vu together is to dive into the heart of how they are so closely connected.
One of the issues we focus on in our outreach with Traces of the Trade and Inheriting the Trade is that no matter what the intentions of people, institutions, governments, and so on, the most important thing to look at is the outcomes. We may intend to rid ourselves of individual acts of racism but if we don’t undo the systemic nature of racism in our culture the outcome will remain the same: white people with over-privilege and people of color with under-privilege.
We may intend to make ourselves safer by going to war in Iraq to fight terrorism but one outcome is that the people of Iraq suffer the consequences of war in ways we in the United States simply don’t have to experience. Nerakhoon (The Betrayal) is an outcome–the very real and personal impact of war on a mother, a father, and their children–of the war in Viet Nam. I’m certain that many similar stories will be written by victims of the war in Iraq.
I certainly did not intend to view Nerakhoon (The Betrayal) and CSNY: Deja Vu as a double feature yesterday. I saw one in the morning and the other last night at different theatres. But the two films have become deeply intertwined in my mind since yesterday and they won’t separate.