Often, the most incisive way to memorialise tragedy is through the experience of children. It was the case for World War II films Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful and Mark Herman’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas – and now it’s true for Angelina Jolie’s feature film on the Cambodian genocide, First They Killed My Father.
Jolie’s fourth directorial venture, released on Netflix, is based on a memoir by human rights activist Loung Ung, who tells her story of survival living under the brutal Khmer Rouge regime in 1970s Cambodia.
When Loung was just five years old, the Khmer Rouge led by dictator Pol Pot stormed her home city of Phnom Penh, and she was forced to flee with her family. We see Loung grab her dolls and a few essentials as they pack their bags. Because her father was a high-ranking government official, he was automatically an enemy of the Khmer Rouge, and the family had to travel from village to village to obscure their identity and former privilege.
Aerial shots of long walks across the country with only the sounds of crickets for company are eventually replaced by work camps which blast propaganda out of speakers. “Now, the rice field is your paper and the hoe is your pen!” is an order that sticks in the mind.
First, Loung and her family are stripped of their personal possessions, their standing in society, their familiar culture. Then, the Khmer Rouge come for her father.
After his execution – which is only briefly imagined in vague, blurry shots – the family splits. On her long and harrowing journey to freedom, Loung suffers hunger and exhaustion, witnesses widespread death and is recruited as a child soldier.
The girl who plays Loung, Sareum Srey Moch, gives a muted performance – clearly a deliberate direction from Jolie. First They Killed My Father does not go ruthlessly for the emotional jugular; nor does it try to shock with bloody scenes of mass executions in the infamous Killing Fields (which get no mention whatsoever).
This ‘light’ touch is both refreshing and frustrating. The film shuns graphic depictions of violence, which– while ensuring the action does not become gratuitous– in the end means that the movie lacks the visceral impact it could have had, perhaps needed to have for a history so little known in the West.
The regime of the Khmer Rouge was bloody – it wiped out nearly a quarter of the country’s population. While films which appear to indulge in graphic violence are excessive and often unhelpful, the brutal nature of this tragedy cannot be shied away from.
Only one scene really comes close to capturing the horror of the regime. In it, Loung walks through a blood-stained forest, strewn with dismembered bodies torn apart by Khmer Rouge bombs. As she picks her way through, she realises that all of the deadly explosives strapped to trees and hidden under piles of leaves could well have been placed by her and fellow youngsters, when she was a child soldier.
However, this scene is the exception rather than the rule. Instead, First They Killed My Father distracts itself with dream-like, lingering shots – close-ups of flowers, rays of sunlight through the canopy, children’s dusty hands and toes. While nice enough, these stylistic asides are too frequent and lack substance. The film is well over two hours long, and the extra minutes could have been used on more dialogue – of which there is hardly any – and on building on the characters of Loung’s siblings, who remain in the periphery.
That said, what Jolie’s film does do well is perspective. Seeing violence and injustice through the eyes of children is a damning argument against war, because the child’s view is not muddied by politics or prejudice. There is a particularly poignant point in the film after the Vietnamese army liberates Cambodia, when Loung finds herself empathising with a captured Khmer Rouge soldier. People are beating him with sticks and stones – literally – for what he has done, but Loung just sees him as a man. His fate at the hands of his enemy just reminds her of her father’s death. To Loung, these people are not two sides of a war; they are just two men.
While the impact of the film might not be as shattering as it could be – or should be – its message comes through clearly: “A daughter of Cambodia remembers, so that others may never forget.”