An Epic Journey: Ellen Kuras Discusses Oscar Winning Movie The Betrayal

Ellen Kuras, ASC, earned Oscar® and Film Independent’s Spirit Award nominations for The Betrayal (Nerakhoon). She produced, directed and shot this extraordinary documentary, which paints a vivid and compelling picture of a Laotian family that migrated to the United States as political refugees after the war in Vietnam ended during the mid-1970s.

Kuras began working on the documentary as a master’s degree thesis project during the dawn of her career some 24 years ago. She continued to work on it in between earning cinematography credits for 33 narrative films, various documentaries and numerous TV commercials. The documentary was culled from some 150 hours of content shot in 16mm and Super 8 film, VHS and Hi8 video formats. The original footage is intercut with archival news footage, including U.S. B-52 airplanes bombing civilians in Laos and excerpts of press conferences with Presidents Kennedy and Nixon.

Kuras followed a nontraditional career path. She took a class in still photography as a student at the Rhode Island School of Design while she was studying social anthropology at Brown University. After graduation, Kuras interned at a museum in Providence, R.I. The city was a melting pot of Southeast Asian immigrants who migrated to the United States in the wake of the war in Vietnam. Noticing the juxtaposition of the traditionally dressed tribespeople walking on the tough, urban streets, Kuras began to take informal portraits of these newly landed immigrants and took an interest in their history.

Kuras received a fellowship to participate in a visual studies workshop in Rochester, N.Y., in preparation for her Fulbright grant to Eastern Europe. There, she met many more Laotian families and applied for a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to make a film about the missing page in Laotian-American history. After completing her research at the workshop, Kuras moved to New York City, where she took a class in 8mm moviemaking.

In 1984, Kuras received word that the National Endowment for the Humanities granted her $15,000 to make a film about the immigrants she met in Rochester. Realizing that speaking the Lao language was key to understanding the people, she got word out in a Laotian neighborhood in Brooklyn that she was looking for someone to tutor her.