What if Robert Flaherty had given the Inuit named Allakariallak a credit as co-director of Nanook of the North? Or if Davis Guggenheim shared the bill with Al Gore on An Inconvenient Truth? Would those films be regarded in a different light? We know that the collaboration between documentary filmmakers and their subjects is what makes most great docs so great. How much of the quality of Grey Gardens is due to Big and Little Edie‘s active participation in the telling of their lives?

Ellen KurasThavisouk Phrasavath

Ellen Kuras and Thavisouk Phrasavath

Of course, there’s a great value to maintaining the line between director and subject, but Ellen Kuras is one of the few filmmakers who decided to cross that line with her doc, The Betrayal, which airs this week on POV. Her co-director on the film, Thavisouk Phrasavath, is also its main subject.

This unusual arrangement is partly due to the unusual amount of time Kuras spent working with Phrasavath on the film — more than 20 years. As Phrasavath said to me, “This is no longer a film. This is our child.”

Kuras is also just a naturally collaborative person. Having been a director of photography for so many years,; she knows how to work on teams with some of the best feature directors in the business. And The Betrayal has also helped launch Phrasavath into a budding film career of his own. The last time I spoke with him, he was working on directing two films.

But I think there’s something more to this collaboration than all of the reasons above. It’s a clear sign to audiences that this film is not just about a man and his family. It’s about something more: his ideas, how he sees the world, and how his ideas and views flow from his cultural background.

Kuras once told me, “The truth is relative: Who tells the story determines what the truth is.” The story of The Betrayal is clearly being told — you can see it in the credits — by two people.
I can’t even think of another example of this sort of credit sharing with a subject. If you can, I’d love to hear about it.

Published by

Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen