Part the 8th in this series...
Acclaimed cinematographer Ellen Kuras first started working on her debut feature documentary, THE BETRAYAL (NERAKHOON) in the mid-1980s. Her collaboration with her subject, Thavisouk Phrasavath (who edited the film and gets a co-director credit), finally unspooled one year ago at the Sundance Film Festival. Since then it has received the Spectrum Award at the Full Frame Film Festival, was shortlisted for the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature and nominated for the Film Independent Spirit Award in the same category. It airs next year on P.O.V.
In this exchange, Kuras talks about her first Sundance experience as documentary director (rather than DP in the narrative world), how she met and began to collaborate with Phrasavath and whether or not a documentary needs to look like shit (oh, come on, you already know the answer to that one).
ATWT: I must admit that whenever I hear about a filmmaker following a subject for 4 or 5 years, I feel a little inferior because I know that I probably don't have the patience level to wait that long or to commit to the same subject. So when I saw THE BETRAYAL, I was completely floored because of the decades that you spent with Thavisouk and his family. When you started the project, could you have imagined that it would have its premiere in 2008?
Ellen Kuras: WOW, I never would've imagined that the years would slip by to 2008; to me, this project has always been a place where I could work out ideas so I didn't put a time limit on its completion. As a Director of Photography, working on this film -- mostly in between shooting many features and commercials -- was a way of me getting back to hear my inner voice and thoughts. What THE BETRAYAL gave me was a way to express myself personally and to explore the idea of metaphor through imagery, words and story.
With Thavi, working on the film became a on-going creative dialogue that included many aspects of the Lao culture past and present, specific and universal. The making of the film was so much part of the experience; we really enjoyed working together and talking about the writing of the prophesies, how images could be visual metaphors and what we wanted to say on a universal level as well as about his family and their experience. We were very much involved with trying to tell so many stories embedded in the subtext and images of the film -- that's why the film has many layers and why audiences discover more and more when they see the film for the second and third times.
There were times, though, years actually, when we didn't work on the film; this was mostly due to my work as a Director of Photography in the feature film world. I've shot many films during the past 23 years, so there's a good reason why my friends and colleagues called me the busiest person they know. Yet during all of the years that I was shooting films with other directors, I always knew I would finish THE BETRAYAL. The real question was carving the uninterrrupted time out of a very active DP career-a year and a half- to concentrate on locking picture and overseeing the entire post process.
We were helped a great deal to finish by a number of people who believed in the film and believed in us. Cara Mertes, who is now the Director of the Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program, is our Executive Producer. While at P.O.V., she was instrumental in picking up the film for American broadcast and helped us again by inviting us to the Sundance Producers and Composers Labs when she moved over to the Sundance Institute. We were also helped by Flora Fernandez-Marengo, who came on as a producer in 2006, Chiemi Karasawa and Wilder Knight, our co-producers and Neda Armian, who was key in organizing the latest interviews of Thavi's father and mother. After we did Thavi's mother's interview, we then knew that we had captured the missing perspective of the story and could close the circle to finish the film.
One great benefit about the length of time is all this amazing film footage you have of Thavisouk in New York in the 1980s. It's wonderful to see the character age through the film and also to see how New York has changed and evolved. I think that part of the story - the surprising danger that the family encountered when they arrived in Brooklyn - might not have come across so clearly if we didn't have these vivid visual reminders of the city at that time.
Yes, it's often that someone exclaims after a screening, "How did you get that footage?" and I laugh, saying, "I was there". I did manage to capture the spirit of that time, and having that footage has helped to tell the story in a much more experiential way. I originally set out to make a film that would enable the audience to vicariously experience the character (in this case Thavi, a real person). That is, shoot or re-create the character's POV -- point of view -- and then have that person walk into their own POV shot.
When I wanted to tell the story of Thavi's escape, I made the decision to shoot quite a bit of material on super 8mm and then optically blow it up to 16mm to give it a certain texture. For the "arrival" scenes, when Thavi is arriving in the US for the first time, I shot on both 16mm and HI 8 (Mini DV didn't exist at the time) so that I could chose which format gave us the most real experience. Of course, these decisions are the domain of a cinematographer influenced by working in narrative. Many documentarians at the time were not thinking of a "look"; the subject was tantamount. I was interested in both. I wanted to find the place where narrative and documentary could be combined and interwoven without the film being docudrama. As per the cinema verite material, the scene in which we help the family to escape the gangs was shot on VHS with a used tape because that was the only camera in the room at the time and we had to leave immediately. I wish that we could've put into the film much much more of the footage shot with the Phrasavath family and the gangs at the time, as it's truly wild and sometimes shocking. But there's only so much one can put into 96 minutes!!
As a cinematographer you're an indie legend, but it must have been altogether different to be stepping out in front of your debut documentary feature when you premiered at Sundance this year. Can you describe what that was like in comparison to all your other trips to Park City as part of the creative team? Did you have any expectations that were met or upended?
What a different experience being at Sundance as a director! Whenever I had been there as a Director of Photography, I actually had time to go to films (although getting tickets to the films and parties was always a challenge -- we the production team always have to beg for tickets to the film's screenings and finding tickets to the parties is crazy). Instead of trying to ferret out tickets, I was the one who was giving them out! As a director, I didn't get to see a single film, a lament commonly heard amongst directors at the festival because we are all so involved in press interviews and the business of getting the film seen and possibly sold. We were fortunate to have a fantastic publicist, Susan Norget and her team, especially the sweet, yet thorough Eric, who were all so on top of it. They set up many interviews and meetings which continue to help the film to this day.
One clear and humorous difference from my past experience in being at Sundance in the narrative realm was travel and car rides. I laugh about it all-- after our premiere (yes, our first screening of the film made over 23 years) I walked outside to the parking lot to go get the van (I was the chauffeur) and there was Michel Gondry with the entire BEKIND REWIND team (I shot BEKIND REWIND) who had just seen the film, getting into the Sundance-sponsored chauffeured cars to go to OUR party. I called over, "So I guess that's the difference between the doc world and the narrative world, eh???"
I think going into the film I believed that your camerawork would be top notch and I was not disappointed, but I have to admit that I was really stunned by Thavisouk's editing. There were some moments in the film that were so creative, where the sound design was so imaginative. Can you talk about how the two of you worked together throughout the project and how your relationship changed over the decades?
I originally started the film by filming another Lao family who lived in Rochester, NY. But a year into it, I wanted to learn how to speak Lao, believing that language is one of the ways into the mind's eye of people and their culture. I put the word out in the Brooklyn Lao community and lo, Thavi calls to say, "Who are you? Do you even know where Laos is?". He came to my apartment twice a week to teach me to speak Lao and I ended up asking him a zillion questions about his memories, stories and the Lao worldview. From those many conversations over time emerged the writings and the prophesies. Back then, Thavi would work with us in the editing room, doing re-constituting (we were working on film-workprint- and a steenbeck) and one day I asked him if he wanted to try to edit together the escape sequence, as he had been the one to actually experience it. I was blown away by the scene, with the jumpcuts and all. I told him, "That's great, continue on" and he asked me, "What's a jumpcut?" whereupon I started explaining and then caught myself. "Never mind, just keep thinking of what's in your head". From that moment on, he started being more involved in the editing of sequences and then taught himself how to edit on the D-VIsion, AVID and Final Cut.
Having graduated as an engineer with a degree at Pratt, his knowledge of the hardware also became a huge asset in the editing room, as he was always game to try to figure out the technical side of editing. Thavi has a particular talent for editing and for choosing certain shots. He understood the idea of visual metaphor and how to use it effectively in the film, to allow the images and shots to unfold from the beginning, middle and end. I do hope he continues to edit other films and look forward to seeing his work in the future.
The sound design was a collaboration -- Dave Paterson, who gave us incredible foley and sound effects and Benny Mouthon, our mixer and longtime friend and tech advisor on the film. I was most interested in using sound as metaphor as well as realistic sound. For all of the shots in Laos, Dave re-created the sounds for the visuals, because I shot all of the Laos material at 32fps to give it a feeling of memory. Importantly, we also wanted to use silence as a sound. After the bombing sequence, the silence of the monk walking up the stairs makes the moment that much more pregnant, reflecting on the roar of the B52's that came before. Howard Shore, our incredibly gifted, brilliant composer, also crafted silences into his score. One clear example of sound metaphor is at the end of the market bombing scene when we see an archival shot of wind blowing dust across the plants in the dirt. Instead of having the sound of a huge wind blowing, I wanted the sound to be a whisper of the wind, almost saying that this is what we become after we die, a breath of dust.
One of my pet peeves and one of the reasons that we launched the Cinema Eye Honors last year was because only the Sundance Film Festival was, at that time, giving an annual cinematography prize for nonfiction films. Even the ASC doesn't have an award for documentary. Why do you think this is, particularly when there is such amazing, creative work being done by cinematographers in nonfiction? Is it because people assume that we're just a bunch of Michael Moore-types running around with cameras on their shoulders?
No, I just think that the awards scene just gets entrenched in what the status quo has been for years. Perhaps the ASC will recognize docs/nonfiction in the near future. The ASC is open to change and recognizing the changing trends/technology in today's film world, so I wouldn't be surprised if changes are made sooner than later.
In fact, a year and a half ago, I was on an ASC panel about doc/nonfiction cinematography at CINEGEAR. We had about 12 ASC cinematographers on the panel who spoke about shooting nonfiction. I happened to say that when I first started shooting this film, THE BETRAYAL, people would say to me "Is it real? It looks too beautiful to be real!" Of course I would reply, "DOES A DOCUMENTARY HAVE TO LOOK LIKE SHIT to be REAL? That's what I do, I'm a cinematographer." Strange how people rely upon convention to tell them what is happening in a film. I guess that's why horror films work the way they do...
We're approaching the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, the one-year anniversary of your first screening. What will you remember about the year?
That the film has moved many people to reflect upon their own lives and the human condition. We are incredibly grateful for all of the invitations to the festivals and their programmers for giving us the chance to show the film to so many who have, in turn, spoken of the film to the world. And we are so glad that people understand the complexity and the depth of the film.
In view of the year, it's so clear that being accepted into the competition at Sundance sparked a huge response and enormously helped the film during this year. Yet, it is the people at Sundance both at the Institute/ the Lab and the Festival who made the time spent there significant and meaningful. And now, we've been nominated for a Spirit Award and have been selected for the Oscar shortlist. It's been a fulfilling year.
James Marsh (MAN ON WIRE)
Carl Deal and Tia Lessin (TROUBLE THE WATER)
Jeremiah Zagar (IN A DREAM)
Yung Chang (UP THE YANGTZE)
Patrick Creadon (I.O.U.S.A.)
Margaret Brown (THE ORDER OF MYTHS)
Marina Zenovich (ROMAN POLANSKI: WANTED AND DESIRED)