Based on the memoir by Loung Ung who also co-wrote the screenplay with Jolie, First They Killed My Father traces the journey of a 5-year-old girl, who with her family, is forced into the labour camps in Cambodia during the period of Khmer Rouge. This period witnessed the worst display of mass killing, sweeping away 25% of Cambodia’s population. The story is told with the perspective of young Ung and how she saw the lives of her family being destroyed. This is Angelina Jolie’s fourth film as a director and it clearly substantiates how she is one of the most gifted artists in Hollywood.
This film is not just a commentary on a communist government of the Khmer Rouge era, but it is also a blow on war destroying lives, even if it is for the good. Opening scenes expose the hypocrisy of the Nixon government, which believed that Washington was helping the “neutral” Cambodian. In these initial 20 seconds, we see the real-life footage of the Vietnamese war, and how it infiltrated into Cambodian territory sabotaging lives and giving rise to the communist government. In the next shot, we see a young girl watching the announcement of the United States severing military aids to the Cambodian government on her television. Then she nonchalantly dances around her house going straight to her balcony. She sees a military chopper, steps half on the railing with one hand holding the top edge of the railing and lifting the other as if she will grab down the chopper from the sky. With this shot, writer-director Anjelina Jolie tells her viewers two major things. First being that little Ung’s world is currently at the brink of a fatal end, and the other being an inevitable fall that will change her world forever.
The story completely follows the perspective of the child and how she confronts things without really understanding them. Even the camera shots follow the height of the little girl so much so that many times the viewers don’t see the face of the elders. Since it is a child’s perspective, we don’t really hear important conversations between adults. There is very minimal use of dialogues in the film, but the moments created by the director gives it an emotional push as required. In act 1 of the film, we see the family having dinner together with little Ung’s plate full of rice and everyone on the dining table laughing together. But, by the end of act 2, we see the same family quietly eating a handful of stolen grains and some insects in the labour camps. At that moment, the father lovingly asks his kids what they would like to eat once they return home. Here, we see how the family is protecting their kids and providing them hope even when they aren’t feeling it. The movie is filled with such moments and that is the power of the screenplay. The story doesn’t tell you what else conspired in Cambodia but the fact that it happened to a family right in front of a five-year-old girl is gut-wrenching. There is no graphic depiction of violence but the vulnerable face of the children who witness it expresses the cruelty. The movie has been shot in the real places of Cambodia, and cinematography is impeccable, capturing the haunting visuals of the native forests. The forced displacement of people by the militants has been captured meticulously without using any CGI.
The film also sheds lights on the propaganda and brainwashing perpetrated by the authoritarian regime using kids as tools. In the third act, we see Ung going through the training to use weapons and planting landmines in the entire forest for the war. In one scene we saw kids informing about a man using foreign medicines to a militant leading to his punishment which they termed as ‘re-education’. Such an incident has also been narrated by Orwell in his dystopian novel 1984 and it’s sad to notice that it turned out to be true. The final sequence of the film is one of the best shot war scenes in any piece of cinema. Unlike other movies based on wars, this film is neither glossy nor jingoistic, it is the most realistic display of war bringing out the worst of human behaviour.
The film also keeps you glued to the screen despite having multiple moments that will make you pause out of distress. The dark premise of ‘First They Killed My Father’ never becomes monotonous as the crisp script keeps us hooked to its central character. Loung’s story is the emblematic depiction of humanity prevailing despite the evil, hardships and agony. But, the victory came at a price which is neither forgivable nor forgettable. When Loung’s older sister dies due to hunger, one of her other siblings talks about the idea of reincarnation but Loung says that she hopes her dead sister never returns to “this”. That moment is just heartbreaking.
The film has been shot in the Cambodian language and has a Cambodian cast which attributes to the authenticity of the movie. The overhead shots of labourers working in the agricultural fields give an eerie sensation of how fragile and insignificant humankind can be. Special credit must be given to the protagonist of the film, Sareum Srey Moch, who has an inherited talent to command your attention at such a young age. Most of the film relies heavily on her tiny shoulders and she delivers an impactful performance which even veterans fail to. Watch her in the climax of the film, when the camera is right on her face for 10 odd seconds and she displays emotions ranging from shock, fear, distress, vulnerability and then finally breaking into tears. A haunting image that stays with you even after you are done watching the film.
Angelina Jolie’s humanitarian work as a UN goodwill ambassador reflects in her taking up a highly political subject and treating it with great empathy without picking sides. Her other two underrated directorials like ‘in the land of Blood and honey’ and ‘unbroken’, where the psychological impact of war is the overarching theme, exemplifies her craftsmanship. However, with this film, she takes giant leaps as a director bringing life to every frame of the movie. This film is a classic and I can’t recommend it enough. It is sad that many around the globe still haven’t seen this gem on Netflix.