Director: Angelina Jolie
Cast: Sareum Srey Moch, Phoeung Kompheak, Sveng Socheata
Watch First They Killed My Father online in the UK: Netflix UK
Five-year-old Loung Ung (Sareum Srey Moch) and her family live a happy life in Phnom Penh. One day, a large parade of armed men arrive in the town centre and she is whisked away, with the promise that they will go back home in three days. They never do.
It’s a hard concept for her to grasp, but the forces behind it are even more so: this is what it’s like for a child to experience the immediate rise of the Khmer Rouge, the communist regime that took over Cambodia in the 1970s, leading to the deaths of millions.
First They Killed My Father is rooted to Loung’s perspective of these horrific years. The initial changes introduced by the regime seem harsh enough – no property, no possessions, no personal clothes – but they’re the tipping point of a brutal reign that systematically takes away food and freedom, all under the pretence of enforcing the greater good. Supporters of the old government are punished, while others are sent into the fields to carry out agricultural labour. Anyone who disobeys is executed.
It’s a topic that’s not widely addressed or acknowledged in Western society. Angelina Jolie’s decision to wade into such difficult waters, then, is to be applauded, not least because she does so in such a sensitive, respectful way. Working with Ung herself, and producing it with Cambodian author Rithy Panh, as well as casting a host of Cambodian actors, this feels very much like the country’s own story – where US cinema has become associated with a trope of white saviours and America-friendly outsiders entering foreign cultures, Jolie’s film has no English dialogue at all, with on-screen titles appearing in Khmer as well as English.
The result makes for harrowingly authentic viewing, made all the more so by anchoring it in Ung’s experience, which offers enough of an outsider’s perspective to make such troubling material accessible to international audiences. There is a downside to that approach, as there’s a relative lack of context or explanation to help viewers grasp the full complexity of what’s going on – the nameless rulers policing the regime are not explored in any depth, for example. But it makes the controlling effect of the party’s terminology (“Angkar” is swiftly established as the name for Khmer Rouge’s ruling body) and routine group chanting more hauntingly apparent. We witness Ung being made to go through re-education at propaganda-filled classes and, even more disturbing, train as a child soldier. Framed against the scale of what’s occurring in the background, these tiny moments carry a large weight: the poverty and starvation forced upon the country is summed up powerfully by the sight of Ung and her friends harvesting green beans, only for one of them to eat a bean. Accused of betraying the whole population, she begs for forgiveness. “I didn’t eat very much,” she cries, to an unsympathetic armed guard.
Phoeung Kompheak and Sveng Socheata are excellent as Loung’s parents, including the father whose fate we constantly dread, but Sareum Srey Moch is the explicit star of the title. She’s superb in the central role, conveying so much while saying so little; her face is hugely expressive, from her nervous smile at a solider waving them through the woods into the new Cambodian state to her wary stares at other menacing figures. There’s perhaps an over-reliance upon her looking at what’s going on without much reaction, but in a society where characters are not allowed to express their feelings or thoughts, it’s a sadly apt demonstration of the intimidating, oppressive atmosphere the Khmer Rouge instills.
Jolie’s use of close-ups is countered by beautifully crafted sequences elsewhere, from a highly stylised shot of children in a river, holding guns in the air, to a bravura upside-down sweep of the capital’s streets during the chaotic introduction. Stunning aerial shots are intercut with events throughout, turning each anonymised individual into tiny blips on the pages of text books.
Those aesthetics only highlight the juxtaposed horror of what’s being depicted, creating a haunting portrait of a nasty chapter in human history. The result recalls Empire Of The Sun, or Netflix’s similarly powerful Beasts of No Nation, and announces Jolie as a director of real heart and purpose, as well as craft: compared to her second directorial effort, the sluggish, less involving Unbroken, First They Killed My Father has more pace, energy and impact. The only misstep, perhaps, is a brief prologue, accompanied by The Rolling Stones’ Sympathy for the Devil, which feels slightly disjointed alongside the rest of the film. Containing footage of Richard Nixon dismissing the US bombing of Cambodia, though, it’s a reminder of how removed the wider world can be from such atrocities. First They Killed My Father is a sincere attempt to correct that.
First They Killed My Father is available on Netflix UK, as part of £7.49 monthly subscription.