Film Review: First They Killed My Father (2017)
Film Director: Angelina Jolie
Review by Belle McIntyre
This film is personal for Angelina Jolie, and it shows. It is difficult to watch in the same way as Twelve Years a Slave. But it is also an important episode in our geopolitical history in that same way. One of Jolie’s adopted children is Cambodian and he is given a producer’s credit which explains her involvement in such a difficult project. Based on the memoir of the same name by Luong Ung about her early childhood in war ravaged Cambodia during the final years of the Vietnam War while they were having their own civil war between Revolutionary forces and the Communist-backed Khmer Rouge for the soul of Cambodia. It was an appalling and bloody time for Cambodia.
After opening newsreel footage of President Nixon lying to the world about what is going on in Vietnam and Cambodia, followed by images of Woodstock revelry and student protests all over the US, we are introduced to the 5-year old Luong living a carefree comfortable life at home with her five siblings in Phnom Penh. But this is the last day of normal life for this family and everyone else in Phnom Penh. The Khmer Rouge occupy the city and force everyone to leave with the ruse that it is only for three days because the US will be bombing the city. As the days wear on it becomes clear that they will not be going back soon if ever.
As conditions worsen they go from traveling in a truck with personal belongings to surrendering their worldly goods and traveling on foot to work camps where they have to build their own houses and are encouraged to develop a communist mentality -including dying their colorful clothes with berries to make them all look the same.
Their fear and anxiety are exacerbated by the fact that the Khmer Rouge consider anyone who was involved with the former government (the father), intellectuals, and the educated, as enemies of the state and routinely tortured and murdered by the thousands. The brainwashing and “re-education” tactics are harsh and relentless and punishment is brutal, often fatal.
All of this pain and suffering is seen through the eyes of the five-year old Luong, as she is separated from her parents and siblings and selected to train with the child soldiers where she learns to to shoot a rifle, set landmines and hand-to-hand combat. Ironically, conditions are better for these kids than for the regular workers, as they get better food and more of it. They are exhorted to convert their pain to bravery in order to be fierce and fearless fighters. By the end of the film she has somehow escaped the military training camp and found her way to a refugee camp where she is re-united with her remaining siblings.
The realism in filming this story is overwhelming. It feels more like a documentary on account of the extreme naturalism. There is little dialogue and no narrative context except for the archival footage interspersed throughout Luong’s child’s-eye view of what she endured. Things happen chronologically and without hyped up drama. She is too young to be judgemental or even discerning which allows her to be almost unquestioning about her circumstances. She does what a kid does when they are on their own. They figure it out. She smiles at strangers and they smile back. She is remarkably fearless. But we are not privy to what is going on in her mind. She is well brought up and therefore responds to authority, which keeps her out of trouble. She never gives in to despair. The effect of this is unusual and difficult to describe and hugely effective in conveying the experience of this one person to an event of such horrific brutality and inhumanity, with such far-reaching consequences, without really politicizing or placing blame. Largely because this is Luong’s story and she was too young to be able to see it that way. It feels amazingly, authentically her story because
nothing extraneous has been added. I think it is quite an accomplishment and I cannot imagine how difficult it must have been to direct such a film with so many child actors speaking a foreign language. Angelina Jolie deserves huge kudos for taking this on and, once again, proving herself a true humanitarian. The film is so powerful. You’ll not soon forget it.