What you need to know before watching Angelina Jolie’s First They Killed My Father

Jolie's new Netflix film tells the story of the Cambodian genocide through the eyes of young girl Loung Ung

Netflix, Angelina Jolie

Angelina Jolie’s harrowing Netflix film First They Killed My Father drops on Friday 14th September, set during the Cambodian genocide in the 1970s – one of the worst human atrocities of the 20th century.

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The film is based on the life of Loung Ung, who was forced to train as a child soldier under the Khmer Rouge. The brutal communist regime oversaw the execution of between 1.7 and 2 million people, nearly one quarter of the country’s population.

UPDATE: First They Killed My Father is now available on Netflix. Read RadioTimes.com’s review here, and find out more about this devastating period in Cambodian history below.

Who were the Khmer Rouge?

The Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK), otherwise known as the Khmer Rouge, emerged from the country’s struggle against French colonisation in the 1940s. The movement was emboldened by the relative success of the first Indochina war, which saw communist forces in Indochina force out the French in 1954, and gained a large following with the help of its alliance with overturned head of state Prince Sihanouk.

Pol Pot, a soldier who had spent time in France and had been a member of the French communist party, was appointed leader of the CPK in 1963.

In 1970, Pol Pot and his party – with the help of Vietnamese forces – embarked on a civil war against the government, led by Marshal Lon Nol. Five years of savage warfare culminated on 17th April 1975, when the Khmer Rouge stormed Phnom Penh and took control by force.

What happened during the Khmer Rouge regime?

Within days of taking power, the CPK forced over two million citizens from Phnom Penh and other cities out into the countryside to do agricultural work. Those who resisted were executed, and thousands of people died during the evacuations.

The party’s extremist, Mao-influenced policies advocated the total overthrow of the country’s infrastructure, institutions and intelligentsia. They attempted to dismantle the class system by abolishing money, free markets, religion, and normal schooling.

The Khmer Rouge believed that only “pure” people were to help build the revolution. The social cleansing began with the arrest and murder of thousands of soldiers and civil servants from the Lon Nol government. Over the next three years, hundreds of thousands of intellectuals, ethnic minorities and members of their own party were accused of being “traitors”. They were detained, tortured and executed.

Cambodian Genocide
Still from First They Killed My Father

How did the genocide come to an end?

In 1977, clashes broke out between Cambodia and Vietnam. Thousands of Cambodians were sent to fight, and many never returned.

Vietnamese troops forced their way into Cambodia in 1978, and seized control of Phnom Penh on 7th January 1979, forcing the Khmer Rouge to retreat to Thai territory.

However, the same year, the United Nations voted to give the Khmer Rouge a seat at the General Assembly, and from 1979 until 1990, they were recognised as the only legitimate representative of Cambodia. 

In 1979, the Vietnamese helped to install a new government in Phnom Penh, the People’s Republic of Kampuchea, which was led by Heng Samin. Despite being criticised as a Vietnamese puppet state, the new communist regime managed to begin rebuilding the country until its reign came to an end in 1993.

Who is Loung Ung?

The Cambodian American was born in Phnom Penh in 1970, though her actual birthdate is unknown as the Khmer Rouge destroyed many citizens’ birth records.

When the Khmer Rouge took power in 1975, Ung, at five years old, was separated from her parents, tortured, and forced to train as a child soldier. Both her parents were murdered.

In 1980, she escaped the country and fled to the USA, and has since become a prominent human rights activist and lecturer. Jolie and Ung adapted the script for the film from her memoir of the same name.

Angelina Jolie, Loung Ung
Angelina Jolie, Maddox Jolie Pitt & Loung Ung

What does the film cover?

First They Killed My Father traces Ung’s experiences under the Khmer Rouge, from 1975 to liberation in 1979.

As the film is told from Ung’s perspective, it does not touch upon the Killing Fields – sites where more than 1.3 million people were executed. For a wider look at the Cambodian genocide, check out Oscar-winning biographical drama The Killing Fields.

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First They Killed My Father arrives on Netflix on Friday 14th September