This spiritual documentary was filmed over the course of 23 years by Ellen Kuras. It follows the suffering and setbacks of a family from war in Laos, to a refugee camp in Thailand, to the promised land of America where they end up living in a slum apartment in Brooklyn next to a crack house. The narrator of this compelling tale of struggle and survival is Thavisouk Phrasavath. His mother tries desperately to hold the family together over the years as they move from one tragedy to another.
Thavisouk's father, in order to advance his career as a soldier, works for the CIA in Laos in the 1970s in their secret campaign against the North Vietnamese. After the United States abandoned Laos, he is arrested as an enemy of the state and sent to a re-education camp. Thavisouk decides to make a run for freedom at age 12. Unable to raise the family in safety, Thavisouk's mother flees with eight of her remaining ten children, leaving two daughters behind with a grandmother, to Thailand where they live in a crowded refugee camp. Thavisouk is eventually reunited with them there. They all move to the United States in 1981.
Instead of the paradise they had expected, they find themselves dumped in a slum where young boys gather in violent street gangs and drug wars make the place a zone of terror. Thavisouk tries to play surrogate father to his younger brothers and sisters who adapt quickly to life in the West and reject their mother's values. The clan is surprised on a trip to Laos when they meet their father who had been presumed dead. Thavisouk and his mother lament the life they left behind in Laos where their experiences were closely connected with the natural world and a meaningful folk religion. In one of the most moving sequences in the film, Thavisouk forgives his father.
Hats off to director Kuras and Phrasavath for their special blending of poetic imagery, cinema verite, and re-photographed archival footage. Also we commend them for the serious and sensitive ways in which they deal with the dehumanization accompanying war, the burdens born by a mother, and the use of a Laotian tradition of freeing an animal into the wild to signify a release of pain. Thavisouk and his mother struggle to keep their souls alive after surviving war in Laos and poverty in America.