MOVIES | Groundbreaking documentarian Ellen Kuras receives welcome tribute at the Walker


Ellen Kuras devoted 23 years to making the documentary The Betrayal, while establishing herself as an in-demand cinematographer, working with Martin Scorsese (No Direction Home), Spike Lee (Summer of Sam and Four Little Girls) and Michael Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). The Walker Art Center’s Expanding the Frame Film Festival highlights Kuras’s work.

“There were very few women in cinematography when I started in 1985,” remembers Kuras. “It was unusual to see a woman being a major member of a major film’s techinical department except for being in costumes or the make-up department. Documentary was one place we could get our start.”

Kuras broke through as a cinematographer on Tom Kalin’s 1992 Swoon (Feb. 17, 7:30 p.m.). This queer cinema contemporary classic boldly remakes Hitchcock’s 1948 Rope and the 1959 Compulsion. Based on the infamous 1924 kidnap-murder by Leopold and Loeb, Swoon brazenly outs the gay relationship between the two wealthy “genius” killers. Kuras’s elegant black-and-white photography evokes the look of Richard Avedon’s 1940s Vogue, creating homoerotic high-fashion with heat—and a chilly undercurent.

hear an interview with ellen kuras on catalyst, archived at

A free double feature (Feb. 19) showcases Kuras’s range as a cinematographer. Director Mary Harmon’s I Shot Andy Warhol (7:30 p.m.) remembers the 1960s through the eyes of a woman at the beginnings of feminism and the violent spiraling-down of that decade in 1968. Lili Taylor gives a great performance as Valerie Solanas, an aspiring writer supporting herself as a street prostitute in New York, best known for her uncompromising “SCUM Manifesto,” one of the bleakest views of “the war between the sexes” ever written. Falling in with Warhol and the art underground, undone by sexual exploitation and her own demons, Solanas slips into madness that Kuras expresses with edgy black-and-white images in stark contrast to the garish pop art counterculture that chews up and spits out so many of its participants. The film screens with Berlin (9:15 p.m.), a 2006 Lou Reed concert film that Kuras’s cinematography transforms into a rock opera of tragic love destroyed by jealous rage.

Don’t miss the free screening of Kuras’s film The Betrayal (Feb. 18, 7:30 p.m.), which follows a Laotian family from war-torn Laos in the 70s to the Bronx in the 80s, and beyond into early 21st century America. This is one of the greatest immigrant stories ever put on film, a documentary with more than enough drama for any fictional feature.

Kuras puts the Phrasavath family into historical context: “It’s the story of the Laotian people during the Vietnam War, about the secret air war conducted in Laos. Very people knew this story. It’s something I really wanted to tell. Even today, the United States still doesn’t want to admit that we fought a war agianst Laos. Yet many people were killed, and many people were affected by the war—especially the Laotians.”

Finding themselves on “the wrong side” when U.S. forces leave southeast Asia, the family is hurled into increasingly desperate circumstances that ultimately bring them to America. Stunned by poverty and cultural displacement, they face an urban war zone. Kuras beautifully renders longed-for Laotian traditions in dream-like memory sequences. One of the most amazing elements of the film’s 23-year gestation is that the family’s oldest son, Thavi, ultimately became Kuras’ collaborator, co-writing, co-directing, and co-editing the film.

“I wanted to make a documentary with an experimental edge to it,” says Kuras. “I wanted to put you in the room with the characters from their point of view, within their own world.” Of Thavi, her collaborator, Kuras observes, “From the beginning, I really wanted the Laotian people to speak in their own voice. Thavi was so much a part of that. He and I kind of have this symbiotic relationship, asking ourselves, ‘How can we get to the universal truth?””

Kuras and Phrasavath perfectly balance the epic and intimate aspects of the journey depicted in The Betrayal. Revealing how the wounds inflicted by U.S. foreign policy continue long after wars end, The Betrayal also communicates across cultures the fierce desire for home that remains embedded in the human heart.

Women are still only 2% of the Directors Guild of America membership, making Ellen Kuras’s artist talk with film clips (Feb. 20, 7:30 p.m.) an especially welcome perspective.