First They Killed My Father (2017)

  • Time: 136 min
  • Genre: Biography | Drama | History
  • Director: Angelina Jolie
  • Cast: Sareum Srey Moch, Phoeung Kompheak, Sveng Socheata


Cambodian author and human rights activist Loung Ung recounts the horrors she suffered as a child under the rule of the deadly Khmer Rouge.


  • Confidence and a keen connection to her subject matter have been Angelina Jolie’s greatest strengths as a director and her fourth feature, First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers, is a particularly personal passion project for the Oscar-winning humanitarian. Her adopted son Maddox, who serves as executive producer on the film, was born in Cambodia and it was during their many visits to his homeland that Jolie developed a friendship with Loung Ung, on whose memoir of the same name the film is based.

    Let’s take a moment to admire Jolie’s choices as a filmmaker. She has tackled difficult subject matter from the start, conveying intimate personal stories set against relatively epic and mostly political backdrops, and often eschewing the involvement of huge stars in favour of relative unknowns. (Though she and then-husband Brad Pitt headlined her last effort, By the Sea, it was a decidedly European art cinema zag instead of the Mr. and Mrs. Smith redux zig that most audiences expected.) Whatever their failings, it is abundantly clear that Jolie has a point of view and she knows how to execute it with a strong sense of purpose, a cinematic eye for composition and detail, and a necessary lack of compromise when it comes to having the film serve the character rather than the other way around.

    All of those qualities are very much in evident in First They Killed My Father, a film in which barely a Caucasian figure is seen, the dialogue is in the Khmer language, and nearly every scene tethered to the point-of-view of five-year-old Loung (Sareum Srey Moch). The prologue’s archival footage fills viewers in on the political climate: then-President Richard Nixon denying America’s secret carpet bombing of Cambodia before withdrawing troops (“We are helping Cambodians to help themselves.”), leaving the Cambodians vulnerable to the atrocities they will soon experience under the brutal Khmer Rouge. The montage ends with Loung’s reflection in a television screen, the image foreshadowing how she will soon be swept up in the turmoil. Indeed, several scenes later, Loung and her family are out in the streets, just one family amongst the hundreds who have been ordered by the Khmer Rouge to evacuate into the countryside.

    From thereon in, the film resembles a survival story as Loung and her family are stripped of their possessions (the soldiers carp on about renouncing all personal property and divesting themselves of corrupt Western influences) and their sense of security as even the most innocuous encounters could reveal that Loung’s father was a military officer for the former government. Of course, his fate is already revealed in the title and it should come as no surprise that he is not the first family member that Loung will lose or be separated from. Loung herself, during the two-year time span the film covers, will be in a children’s camp where she’s taught to plant land mines, shoot AK-47s, and stand waist-deep in water as rain pours down on her and the other children with only hunger and fear as her faithful companions.

    The film is impressionistic and observational, with images expressing more than words could say – the barely there gruel that the Cambodians are given contrasted with the baskets brimming with rice and vegetables sent to the soldiers, the monks forced to work the fields as the soldiers hurl insults at them, Loung and other children scrambling for cover as they’re caught amidst the gunfire between Vietnamese soldiers and the Khmer Rouge flunkies, and, perhaps most powerfully and disturbingly, Loung standing in the middle of a minefield as those around her are blasted into pieces. Some may criticise Jolie for not providing a greater context to Loung’s story or for showing the mass exterminations that occurred under the Khmer Rouge, but First They Killed My Father is no less impactful for these omissions. This is very much a story seen through a child’s eyes and, though she cannot fully process or articulate the events, she – and, by extension, the audience – bears witness to a country’s tragedy.

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  • (RATING: ☆☆☆☆ out of 5)

    GRADE: B


    IN BRIEF: An impressive film that authentically addresses the subject of war and, despite some missteps, builds to a powerful conclusion.

    SYNOPSIS: The true story of a young Cambodian child forced to survive during the Khmer Rouge uprising.

    RUNNING TIME: 2 hrs., 16 mins.

    JIM’S REVIEW: Opening this weekend, and streaming on Netflix is Angelina Jolie’s powerful docudrama, First They Killed My Father (subtitled A Daughter of Cambodia Remember), a film that shows war through the eyes of a five year old child. One can readily admire the fortitude and devotion that this actress / director applies to her film. It is a sad and harrowing tale that occurs too often in this violent world of ours. With little dialog, the film tells the compelling tale of Loung Ung (Sareum Srey Moch, making an impressive debut) as she overcomes oppression in order to survive. Using all Cambodian actors speaking their native language, Ms. Jolie wrote the screenplay, along with the author, and she relies on strong visuals to reveal the escalating tensions that once destroyed a small nation.

    The basic story is involving and realistically viewed, but the movie unfolds at a sluggish pace, especially in the first half hour with too many scenes focusing on the hardships occurring before the actual titled event even happens offscreen. We watch our heroine forced to become a prisoner in an internment camp, along with her family, before becoming a child soldier. Yet the historical aspects of the story are rarely addressed for any moviegoers who may not know the backstory of the rise of the Khmer Rouge regime and the genocide and enslavement that followed in mid-70’s Cambodia. (Approximately two million Cambodians were killed due to warfare, starvation, and forced labor.) We see the various happenings that endanger this child and her family but we are also trying to sort out and unravel these sudden and abrupt changes to their everyday existence, mainly through the photojournalistic approach to the narrative rather than understand the words spoken.

    Loung Ung’s autobiographical memoir about her family becoming casualties of war is told honestly, if a bit one-sided, with the director’s sometimes heavy-handed treatment of the Vietnam War and her humanitarian leanings interfering with the film’s momentum. There are flashbacks and dream fantasies that simply get in the way of the basic compelling story. Judicious editing would have given the film even more impact.

    Ms. Jolie’s direction starts off shaky and uneven. Her film is wildly accurate and hyper-realistic at times and yet languid and tedious in its details in other moments. Using her “Sympathy to the Devil” opening montage with archival newsreel footage and scenes of American involvement in the War Without a Name is a class in Cliché Filmmaking 101. She introduces Ms. Ung’s family with their wealthy privileged lifestyle due to her father governmental job and their happy home before slowly beginning to contrast the “then and now” aspects of the family’s ordeal. Soon they and thousand of other sympathizers are exiled and put into camps and later being separated as a family unit.

    Yet if one doesn’t lose interest and continues on this journey, the film builds to an emotional conclusion. It is in the film’s second half where Ms. Jolie delivers with many striking images (a tearful child clutching onto her long lost stuffed animal, a dead body washed ashore and seen by gaping children, child laborers being victimized and abused), All of these images resonate. Her direction is most effective in other scenes of violence and brutality, as in her climactic battle sequence involving land mines that is intensely filmed and riveting. (Special mention to Anthony Dod Mantle for his stunning cinematography.)

    First They Killed My Father is ultimately an impassioned plea for unity, understanding, and empathy that tries and eventually succeeds as it asks us to remember the past. Ms. Jolie’s reverent film serves as a lasting testament to the human spirit.

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