The Rights! Camera! Action documentary series kicked off with the story of Thavisouk Phrasavath.
The Rights! Camera! Action documentary series kicked off with the story of Thavisouk Phrasavath.

It’s a general rule of thumb that it takes around three months to shoot a feature film. Ellen Kuras’ The Betrayal, which will be screened on Tuesday, Sept. 13 by the Duke Human Rights Center and the Kenan Institute of Ethics, is an exception.

The documentary, which was filmed over an astounding 23 years, follows the struggle of Laotian refugee Thavisouk Phrasavath, forced to flee his native country after his father—an informant in the CIA’s secret war in Laos in the 1970’s—was labelled an enemy of the state by the Pathet Lao government. At the age of twelve, Phrasavath crossed the Mekong River on inflated plastic bags to escape persecution and imprisonment. Phrasavath, who co-directed The Betrayal, revisits his life—his childhood in Laos, his time in Thai refugee camps and as an immigrant in New York—to examine tumultuous transitions from wartime to peacetime.

Robin Kirk, program director at the Duke Human Rights Center, said that The Betrayal, which received an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary Feature in 2009, is one of the best films she has ever seen.

“[It] succeeds in telling a human story that we can all identify with and recognize,” Kirk said. “The circumstances are extreme, but you can connect on a human level.”

Kirk believes that the documentary is an important one for undergraduates because it explores the issue of human rights and the lives of refugees from an angle that all students can comprehend.

“The filmmaker succeeds because she makes us care about these people as human beings,” Kirk said. “We understand the complexities, but through a younger angle. Students can connect to issues that they’ve had in their own family.”

That sort of common ground is crucial to a documentary like The Betrayal, which spent more time in production than most undergraduates have spent on the planet.

“The film does a really excellent job of bringing the struggle to life,” said Patrick Stawski, a human rights archivist for Duke University Libraries. “It deals a lot with issues of how we reconcile the past and move on with the future.”

The screening is the first in the 2011-2012 Rights! Camera! Action! Human Rights Film Screening Series, which features award-winning documentaries with human rights themes followed by discussion panels with film’s director or writer. The series started in the fall of 2009, with co-sponsors that include Duke Human Rights Center and the Program in Arts of the Moving Image.