First They Killed My Father

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Release Date: September 15, 2017
Screened: September 11, 2017 (Toronto International Film Festival)
Runtime: 136 minutes
Rating: NR – equivalent to a strong PG-13
Studio: Netflix
Director: Angelina Jolie
Cast: Sareum Srey Moch; Phoeung Kompheak; Sveng Socheata; Mun Kimhak; Heng Dara; Khoun Sothea; Sarun Nika; Run Malyna; Oun Srey Neang

Angelina Jolie directs the adaptation of Loung Ung’s memoir “First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers” and the results are a film that is experienced rather than enjoyed.

This film stuck with me when I saw it at the Toronto International Film Festival. It recounts Loung’s story when, as a young child, her peaceful home life in Phnom Penh is violently upheaved in April 1975 by the emergence of the horrific Khmer Rouge regime that overtakes her homeland. She and her family (including her parents and six siblings) are rounded up, forced to desert their city and move to a work camp, and pledge allegiance to the new regime. Her siblings, and eventually Loung herself, are commanded to become soldiers for the new establishment. With her family ripped apart, young Loung is helpless to bear witness to the horrors and devastation that the Khmer Rouge regime inflicts upon Cambodia.

It’s tough to say that I “liked” this film, in the sense that I found it entertaining – how can one really “like” a film that showcases violence and human suffering through the eyes of a small child? More accurately, I admired the film and was in awe of the resilience and perseverance of little Loung. How she managed to stay sane and, well, alive, whilst enduring such torment at such a young age is truly astounding. It takes a woman, not to mention child, of remarkable strength to be able to pull through such an experience and come out the other side. Loung’s story is ultimately one of the power of family and the inherent fortitude that guides someone through such extraordinary circumstances.

I also admired Jolie’s direction and the choice she makes to not sanitize the material in order to make it a mass appeal movie, but rather depict in a straightforward, visceral style the brutality of the work camps and Khmer Rouge functionaries. I loved how Jolie, through the eyes of young Loung (played with extraordinary truth and unaffectedness by Sareum Srey Moch), was able to convey the bewilderedness and confusion that Loung was experiencing as her family was torn apart and she was made to become a child warrior. Some scenes such as little Loung pointing and shooting a rifle and learning the battle cry (along with other young child soldiers) of the Khmer Rouge are particularly disturbing.

Jolie never falters on her respect and reverence for the Cambodian people and I get the feeling from her direction that she is almost humbled to be able to tell Ung’s story (her Cambodian-born son, Maddox Jolie-Pitt served as an executive producer on the film). The movie doesn’t exhibit a showy style or showcase any fancy camera movements (a few overhead shots is about as fancy as we get), and that is a good thing. This isn’t a movie about style, but story…and focusing on the story is clearly the first and foremost of Jolie’s objectives. Jolie’s well-documented humanitarian inclination is all over this film, as it should be: this is a movie about man’s cruelty against man and about the power of the oppressed overcoming staggering odds. While the movie ends on an uplifting note, it is important to recognize and know that this is one family’s story and that thousands of other families and lives were destroyed by the Khmer Rouge regime. First They Killed My Father is a difficult film to like, but a rewarding film to experience.

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