Throughout her 15 year career Angelina Jolie has been called many things – actress, sex symbol, humanitarian, one-half of the ridiculously over-publicized, paparazzi darling “Brangelina”. But not enough people have considered her prowess behind the camera. Through four directed films she has shown a sharp awareness of technique but never quite hit her stride. That changes with her fifth film, “First They Killed My Father”.
This piercing historical thriller is an adaptation of human rights activist Loung Ung’s memoir of the same name. In her book Ung, a childhood survivor of the brutal Pol Pot dictatorship, tells the heart-wrenching story of growing up during the Khmer Rouge reign. For the film she collaborated with Jolie in writing the screenplay.
A brief but pointed newsreel introduction lays the foundation for Cambodia’s vulnerability and the subsequent rise of the Khmer Rouge. From there we move to April, 1975. We meet Loung as a fun, precocious 7 year-old (played with such vivacity and emotion by Sreymoch Sareum). As the daughter of a government official she lives a privileged life with her loving parents and six siblings in Phnom Penh. But her world is forever turned upside down when the Khmer Rouge take control and forcibly evacuate the entire city.
Loung and her family leave with nothing but necessities. They join floods of people, now refugees in their own country, on what some journalists and historians have described as a death march. For Loung’s family it’s particularly stressful. Her father (played with such warmth by Kompheak Phoeungas) is an instant target due to his government ties. This makes every checkpoint or encounter with a Khmer Rouge soldier a harrowing experience.
In a bit of ominous foreshadowing the film’s title looms over a good portion of the story and is an indicator that the road ahead of this family will be a difficult one. Much like the memoir it’s based on, the movie puts us behind the eyes of young Loung. Many films have told their story from a child’s perspective, but not many have done it as well as Jolie does here. You genuinely feel Loung trying to make sense of all she is witnessing and experiencing. You also feel Loung’s love for her family by the way they are often filmed from her perspective. It’s especially evident with her father who Jolie often frames with a childlike adoration. Loung’s love for her family is a fundamental ingredient to the story.
Visually Jolie intentionally understates the brutality and violence choosing to allow it to burn just outside of our sight. It keeps our focus on the characters but also leads to some of the film’s most stunning photography – breathtaking overhead shots that briefly pull us out of Luong’s head to give us a broader picture of the horror. Later in the film the violence comes more into focus as it becomes more of a reality for Loung. Jolie shoots it careful and with great effect. And even beyond the violence, there are so many powerful images captured by cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (know most for his collaborations with Danny Boyle).
Jolie should also be commended for her deep desire for authenticity. It led her to film on location in Cambodia. She also used Cambodian actors and actresses as well as the native language of Khmer. All great decisions which puts us the viewers in the proper mindset to take in this story as we should. The film comes across as truly Cambodian in its respect and passion. In fact the film is Cambodia’s submission to the Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film.
“In new Cambodia they’ll be no banking, no trading, no private property. No Rich, no poor. No class. We are all the same now.” This one of many lines of propaganda we hear shouted out by Khmer Rouge soldiers. We know it’s a lie. So do Loung’s parents. Yet they are powerless to do anything. That may be the greatest tragedy. As a kid it wasnt a history class that first educated me on the Khmer Rouge and the atrocities committed by their hand. It was a movie – 1984’s powerful “The Killing Fields”. Now I feel another movie is reopening my eyes. Jolie’s film has been simmering in the back of my mind for days. I want to see it again. Sure it’s a difficult watch, but some stories need to be etched into our brains. I would argue this is one of them.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS