First They Killed My Father, subtitled A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers, tells the story of Cambodian author Loung Ung and her battle to stay alive under the brutal regime of the Khmer Rouge. Most films that deal with war often tend to hover around a particular incident during the conflict. Whether that be the evacuation of Dunkirk (Dunkirk), the Battle of Okinawa (Hacksaw Ridge), or the struggle to bring a fellow soldier back home (Saving Private Ryan). These films tell the story of war as a hero’s journey to overcome enormous obstacles and complete their mission in service to their country and fellow soldiers.
Other war dramas however, shoot with a much wider lens and tell their stories as a series of episodes in the main character’s life. American Sniper and The Hurt Locker are two examples of such films; First They Killed My Father is another. The film has no definitive three-act structure, but instead rolls along from scene to scene, portraying the immense fortitude that allowed Loung Ung and her siblings to survive through the some of the most trying experiences of their lives.
We are introduced to Loung Ung (Sreymoch Sareum) as a seven-year-old girl living in a modest Phnom Penh apartment with her parents and six siblings. At the time, her greatest bother seems to be whether she can dance as well as her older brother, Khouy (Khoun Sothea). That all changes when a company of Khmer Rouge revolutionaries march into the city and begin a forcible evacuation. The Khmer Rouge claim that the United States Air Force will be bombing the city in three days, and therefore, those who wish to survive must leave immediately. We see parents carrying babies in bedsheets, men throwing luggage onto carts, and others leaving with nothing more than the clothes on their backs. As Loung’s parents desperately stuff their suitcases, her older brother, Meng (Heng Dara), yells to her “Go and eat something”, knowing that they will likely not have food for several days. Loung’s parents, who only moments earlier seemed as happy as a honeymooning couple, are now gripped with fear as they are marched along an open highway, out of the nation’s capital and into the countryside. Child soldiers line the streets with AK-47s in tow as they yell orders at the fleeing citizens. Jolie depicts these scenes from the perspective of the young and naïve Loung, thus injecting them with a mixture of confusion and tense uncertainty at what the future bodes for this family. Not a single gunshot is fired throughout this entire ordeal, but the frenzied, turbulent and generally chaotic atmosphere perfectly captured through the eyes of 7-year-old Loung, leave you in no doubt as to the brutality of the Khmer Rouge regime – the regime infamous for perpetrating the Cambodian genocide that wiped out roughly a quarter of the country’s population.
The film then proceeds in an episodic fashion, with each chapter bringing more challenges than the last. First, the family must survive starvation as they march endlessly along open roads. Then, after being taken in by relatives, they are once again forced to flee when said relatives become anxious about offering shelter to Loung’s father (played by a humble and taciturn Phoeung Kompheak) because he is a high-ranking government official and therefore, a prime target for the hatred of the Khmer Rouge. After that, they are captured by a company of Khmer Rouge soldiers and sent off to a labour camp, where they must fight disease, hunger, heat and misery to stay alive. Perhaps the only thing truly keeping them alive is the bond they share with another. But even that begins to break when three of Loung’s siblings are led away by Khmer Rouge officers, presumably to a “re-education camp” where they will be trained to become child soldiers.
The entire film is told through the eyes of 7-year-old Loung, but despite that, her lines are few enough to fit onto two sides of A4. This is because Jolie and Loung Ung herself, have chosen to dispense with dialogue and instead tell the latter’s story as a sequence of raw and unfiltered emotional reactions to the atrocities that took place around her. As a result, the film is an entirely experiential narrative of how Loung, and several other children like her, managed to survive through one of the worst genocides in human history. In the film, Loung cannot comprehend the larger meaning of all the warfare unfolding around her, and so responds to it with a kaleidoscopic mixture of fear and confusion – the reflection of a desperate attempt to comprehend a world that has turned upside down. This is important, because as adults viewing the effects of warfare through the eyes of a young child, you begin to see just how such violence feeds off the destruction of entire families and in particular, how it destroys the lives of the children who die as well as those who survive. Children who were once innocent and joyful souls, are indoctrinated with a fanatical ideology and inspired to perpetuate the cycle of violence that effected the destruction of their own families. This is most evident when towards the end of the film: Loung, having escaped the Khmer Rouge, is given an opportunity to exact revenge on one of their captured soldiers. Her fist clenches and her jaw tightens, but at the last moment, she relents and decides to spare the man – as do the other refugees encircling him. A testament of Loung’s strength – even as a seven-year-old – to reject self-indulgent violence and choose peace instead.
With First They Killed My Father, Angelina Jolie and Loung Ung have put together a five-star cast and crafted a tour de force that is undoubtedly one of the best films of the year. Jolie’s decision to focus on the eyes and raw facial expressions of Loung and her siblings, raises a mirror to boundless cruelty of the Khmer Rouge, and paints a captivating yet agonising portrait of the devastation that war inflicts on children. Loung’s confusion as her family is driven out of Phnom Penh; her sorrow when her father is dragged away; and her fear when cautiously navigating a minefield, earnestly reflect the endless life-defining challenges that millions of Cambodians faced under the callous savagery of the Khmer Rouge. First They Killed My Father is a tale of intense hardship and miraculous survival; a tale that honours both those who died and those who survived during the Cambodian genocide. It is a strikingly honest and visceral account of a story that needs to be heard, and one that hopefully, will inspire others to tell similarly important stories in the future.
First They Killed My Father has been selected as the official Cambodian entry for “Best Foreign Language Film” at the 90th Academy Awards, and is currently streaming on Netflix.
Dir: Angelina Jolie. Script: Loung Ung; Angelina Jolie. Starring: Sreymoch Sareum; Kompheak Phoeung; Socheata Sveng. 136 minutes