Film Review: First They Killed My Father

An alternately moving and protracted depiction of the Cambodian genocide from Angelina Jolie.
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Filmed from the point of view of its child protagonist, and adapted from the memoir of the same name by Loung Ung, First They Killed My Father is an impressionistic, episodic and at times merciless account of the genocide that devastated Cambodia from 1975 to 1979.

When the film begins, Loung (the excellent Sareum Srey Moch) is five years old and living with her family in comfortable bourgeois style. They’re city folk, as is everyone else whom Loung watches cheer on the parade that sweeps down their street in celebration of the American evacuation from Cambodia, and the ascension of new Communist leadership. But soon enough, and in one of the more effective sequences of the film, excitement quickly devolves into terror as soldiers overtake the revelers. The shift in tone is seamless. Cheers give way to stern military orders delivered through megaphones that instruct the people to pack their belongings and evacuate to the countryside, ostensibly for their own safety, as, so they’re told, the Americans are planning to bomb the city. You can return in three days, the soldiers tell the evacuees. One doesn’t need to be familiar with the historical record to understand the lie.

And so begins Loung’s journey through what has become the despot Pol Pot’s “Kampuchea” (his new name for the country), a brutal and brutish place where people are forced to live as “equals” in a bizarre interpretation of an agrarian utopia. When asked to give his occupation, Loung’s father lies and says he is a humble worker, knowing full well that if he were to reveal his well-to-do background, he would be shot and killed, the fate of innumerable victims among the former middle class. The family is forced to denounce their “selfish” ways and relinquish their belongings to the Angkar, or Khmer Rouge leadership. They dye their clothes a dull bluish grey so they can look like everyone else in an act of renunciation against “Western vanity.”

In this atmosphere, Loung ages, until we leave her at nine years old. First They Killed My Father is filmed according to what she sees and notices, the camera spending nearly as much time on her face in its state of reflection as on the images she contemplates. These images of violence are unstinting, but it is the ceaseless succession of atrocities, one scene after another after another, that at times gives the film an air of mercilessness. This isn’t to suggest it’s a uniform slog without air or light; in fact, and as if to compensate for rather than simply counterbalance its darker moments, the film includes a streak of sentimentality that can be nearly saccharine. This is most evident in Loung’s dreams and flashbacks. Sareum Srey Moch has an intelligent enough face that her emotions are much more movingly and subtly conveyed when the camera simply remains on her features.

But those unyielding scenes in the present action are harrowing, some deeply affecting, unavoidably affecting, particularly toward the latter half of the film. They are also episodic. That the movie is an adaptation of a book is apparent in the sheer number of incidents that it packs into two hours and 16 minutes. On the one hand, many of these incidents—which see Loung migrate from an agrarian camp to a child workers’ camp to a military training camp and beyond—move along quickly in themselves. But there are so many of them in total, in a film whose impressionistic style has already subordinated traditional narrative to sensations, that, as a whole, First They Killed My Father ends up seeming overlong. There is a comprehensible character arc for Loung, but the ascent of this line is so gradual, it feels almost level. In other words, problems of structure—a story heavy not so much with subject matter (although of course that is there, too) as with incident—appear to detract most from First They Killed My Father’s great ambitions, and its moving renderings.

Writer, director and producer (and mother of one of the executive producers, the Cambodian Maddox Jolie-Pitt) Angelina Jolie first met the real Loung Ung when she was a twenty-something shooting Tomb Raider in Cambodia. She bought a paperback copy of First They Killed My Father, and was moved to learn more. Though her adaptation of the memoir may be uneven, its earnest depiction of the Cambodian genocide will likely move sensitive viewers to similar acts of self-education.

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