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 Tuesday, November 10, 2009 IssueFaculty/Staff E-Newsletter


Laotian film documentary mirrors lives of CU employees
by Melanie O. Massengale, University Communications

Sunnie Gist, a supervisor for human resources in Facilities Management, presented the documentary, “The Betrayal (Nerakhoon)” at the 2009 Diversity Summit, a film she describes as “a history of my life.” The documentary follows the life of Thavisouk Phrasavath, “Thavi,” a young Laotian man and his family on their journey from war-torn Laos in 1979, to a refugee camp in Bangkok, Thailand, and through 1982 as they made the difficult adjustment to American life in New York City.

Thavi’s family was forced to flee their homeland in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam and his father’s imprisonment by the victorious Communist Pathet Lao. Thavi’s father, a Laotian army officer then attached to U.S. military, had advised the CIA on locations for secret bombing runs in Laos. In Brooklyn, two years later, Thavi met Ellen Kuras, a graduate student seeking Laotian language lessons. For the next 24 years, Ellen and Thavi filmed his and his family’s experiences. “The Betrayal” does not follow typical documentary format, but moves in a free-form fashion between vintage news clips and President Nixon’s news conferences, to Thavi and his family in their Brooklyn apartment in the 1980s, to more recent footage of Laos, and Thavi’s reunion with his two sisters. While “The Betrayal” is one family’s story of survival and adjustment, it also reflects the experiences of a number of Laotians who came to America in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal from Southeast Asia.

Gist, like Thavi, left Laos with her family in 1979. She was six years old. “My father, my family were linked to the U.S. military so we had to escape,” she said. “Quite a huge mass of people and families left Laos then. The Guerrilla Free Lao Army was after anyone who had dealings with the United States.” As Thavi’s family did in the film, Gist and her relatives made a dangerous crossing of the Mekong River to reach safety in Thailand. Enemy soldiers patrolling the broad river could intercept refugees during the passage, so speed and silence while travelling were crucial. “My brothers were in the river hanging from the sides of the boat and we were all just hoping nobody would hear us so we wouldn’t be shot,” she said. “Dad said that my little niece cried the whole time, and we thought we were dead.” Two of Gist’s brothers were already in Thailand and, as did Thavi’s relatives in the documentary, the family lived in a refugee camp for two years. “We moved to Michigan, sponsored by a Roman Catholic family who provided us with a house,” she said. Gist came to Colorado after reconnecting with a brother who had moved here.

Bounma and Noi Boulaphinh, who are husband and wife and part of the Housing Environmental Services team, have been employed at CU for 10 years. Both saw the documentary after hearing about it from a supervisor. “The film didn’t say what happened in the refugee camp,” said Bounma, a Vietnam veteran. “It should have told the purpose of the camp, which was to see if we could go back to Laos. We were pleading with the U.S., ‘Help us get our country back.’” Bounma highly recommends the documentary to people of other cultures as well as to new generations of Laotians. “They will understand what the Laotian families and community have gone through to get here – why we came. Younger Laotians will see what their parents endured and it will open their eyes.”

Both showings of “The Betrayal” at the Diversity Summit were filled to capacity, and Gist hopes for a rescreening of the award winning documentary in the future. “I would like to include a panel discussion next time,” she said. “It would allow us to provide the background about the war that the documentary doesn’t cover.”


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