Will wonders never cease. A film about Cambodia told from a Cambodian perspective instead of through the heroic intervention of white outsiders. Yes, that’s Angelina Jolie behind the camera, as director and co-writer, but First They Killed My Father, subtitled “A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers,” steadfastly honors its first-person account. The film takes the point of view of Loung Ung (newcomer Sreymoch Sareum), who was only five years old when the Communist Khmer Rouge entered the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh in 1975, brutally executing fellow Cambodians with ties to the old regime and making life a living hell for Loung, her parents and siblings. Loung’s memoir, published in 2000, is the basis for Jolie’s film. And except for Vietnam-era, Nixon footage, which Jolie uses to excoriate the U.S. role in the secret bombing raids on Cambodia, we stick with Loung, reading her harrowing story on the face of the extraordinary child who plays her.
If Americans still have a hard time piecing together the byzantine civil wars of the time, image a child’s confusion. In a bold decision, Jolie lets us see only what Loung sees. The effect is shattering, as Loung’s father (Kompheak Phoeung) – a former member of the military police in the U.S.-backed government – is marked for death while she and her other family members are separated and forced to endure starvation rations and backbreaking labor in service to Angkar (the Khmer leadership). This also means Loung must bear witness to a genocide that wiped out a quarter of Cambodia’s population from 1975 to 1979. Jolie’s scenes of Loung being trained as a soldier are particularly chilling, especially when she is instructed in how to plant landmines and deliver a death blow.
You can criticize Jolie and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle for letting images that are merely picturesque poke through the suffering. But this film (in the Khmer language with English subtitles) is not a documentary. And the brightly colored dream sequences in which Loung imagines feasting at a banquet or being back at home with her family and her mother’s soup and crunchy pork seem reasonable for a child. Indeed, it’s the planned corruption of an innocent that gives the film its shocking resonance to what the Taliban is doing now.
Jolie is often patronized as a humanitarian who makes worthy films to rouse an indifferent public, like that’s a bad thing. It also denies the visceral impact of her work and the artful shape of her compositions, as seen in Unbroken and In the Land of Blood and Honey. First They Killed My Father, which opens this week at the same time that it begins streaming on Netflix, is clearly a passion project for Jolie. Her adopted son Maddox, 16, was born in Cambodia and served as executive producer on the film. If there is such a thing as a cinematic labor of love, this is it.