STOP10: 'First They Killed My Father' by Angelina Jolie

The film opens with the title: ‘A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers’ before showing us a beauteous green landscape with only the quiet and calming atmospheric sounds to hear. Suddenly, a montage mix of Richard Nixon together with old news and archival footage and the Rolling Stones takes over with Sympathy for the Devil; we see some clips of Cambodian culture and their natural landscapes, social commentary and splashes of violence, fear, death and horror - the casualties of the war and conflicts.

And then, we return to a calm. The camera tracks across the floor and makes it’s way to the television screen which plays news footage of the war. Reflected on the old-style braun tube television screen is a little girl who watches the news play with a blank look on her face - I do not think she fully grasps the severity of the situation, but then again not many seven year olds would.

It is here, we finally see our protagonist, the little seven year old little girl whose journey though the war torn Cambodia we will follow. She walks out of the room into the balcony and we, along with her are treated to a view of the city streets of Cambodia from the balcony top; from her point of view.

What makes this picture stand out from the many war films out there, is the film’s commitment to see the conflicts and terrors from a child’s point of view, as tragic it may be to watch.

Angelina Jolie’s 2017 biological historical thriller, First They Killed My Father is a stunning anti-war picture and easily Jolie’s most assured directorial work. The film is based on the memoir of the same name by Loung Ung and it tells the story of a seven year old girl, along with her family struggling to survive within a conflict torn Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge Regime.

The film makes the exceptional decision to consistently follow Loung’s story, creating a focused and emotionally riveting emotional point of view, considering that the perspective comes from a child who is witnessing terrible things. And what makes it even more tragic is that the girl may not truly be aware of the many things that are happening to her - it is clear to us when we see her face and watch her expressions as she goes by the many situations.

When faced with difficult times, troubling concepts, her expressions are a little too stoic. Yet, despite her stoic expressions throughout, there are moments where she shows her emotional vulnerability as a child surviving in a conflict torn place, which makes her circumstances all the more tragic to watch.

It is noteworthy to add that Sreymoch Sareum, the child actress who plays the role of Loung Ung does a fantastic job in the film, delivering a performance that is not only realistic and dramatic, but also subtle and filled with little nuances that breathe life into the character.

There is something beautiful and raw about Anthony Dod Mantle’s cinematography, (most notable for his work and collaboration with notable Danish directors, Thomas Vinterberg and Lars Von Trier) with its fluid moving cinematography that not only looks polished and beautiful, but also feels spontaneous and realistic, further enhancing the subjective point of the view of the picture.

There is a hair raising scene where the girl, Loung runs through a field of mines. The camera keeps it to the ground, we see things from Loung’s point of view, the people running through the forest, behind the trees and stepping on mines as she anxiously takes steps forward. The well placed camera perspective makes the scene a heart-stopping thrill to watch.

Throughout the picture, we see the Loung Ung and her siblings go through the many tribulations and hardships during the Khmer Rouge Regime in Cambodia. We see her grow as a girl and person, eventually becoming more assured of herself and coming to terms with the losses that have occured to her during the Regime’s rule.

The picture ends on a hopeful note, fading to white and with the text: ‘The film is dedicated to those who lost their lives under the Khmer Rouge - and those who survived.’ dedicating to those who have been affected by the conflict. Certainly, First They Killed My Father shows the harrowing the experiences of those who have suffered under the Regime. I cannot think of a greater way for the people's sufferings and losses under the hands of conflict to be understood and known by the masses - memortalising the loss of innocence and sufferings of the people onto the screen.

First They Killed My Father was recently screened at the 8th Cambodia International Film Festival, and it was also the official Cambodian selection for the Academy Awards 2017. 

Review by Timothy Ong

Check out the other 9 films in our STOP10 list of Cambodian films from CIFF 2018.
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