Angelina Jolie, acclaimed actress and steadfast humanitarian, has recently developed a taste for directing movies, and her fourth and most recent feature, First They Killed My Father, is her most successful effort to date: an authentic, at times traumatic wartime experience, set at the tail end of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge’s successful campaign to overthrow the U.S. aligned Cambodian Republic in the 1970’s.
What is particular to Jolie’s material is its perspective: drawn from the memoirs of Khmer Regime survivor Loung Ung, Jolie’s film follows Ung as she faces the terror of Pot’s totalitarian regime through the formative years of her childhood. What this leads to is a fascinatingly earnest point-of-view in relation to the horrifying events.
In many respects, First They Killed My Father could be regarded as a spirited sibling of Cary Fukanaga’s Beasts of No Nation: a film that also dealt with a dictatorial rebellion, from the perspective of a child, Agu (Abraham Attah). However, where Fukanaga’s film lead its protagonist down an aggressive, regressive path, Jolie maintains a more optimistic view, despite the depravity of Ung’s reality.
This is achieved through a number of effective methods that prove Jolie’s technical prowess in handling difficult subject matter. Most notably, Jolie revives the use of POV camera shots to fully envelop her audience within the mind of Ung, identifying with her subjective viewpoint only: one wonderfully simple example finds Ung bathing herself, with water poured over the camera, creating an effect of baptism that cleanses her, and us, of the terrible terrorism that stalks Ung and her family. By utilising these techniques, Jolie can remain emotionally detached from the thorny political schema that underlined much of the conflict, instead presenting this as the unnecessary human crisis that a child would recognise it as: rather than validate either side, Ung merely spectates and reacts to the genocide with bewilderment and horror, hoping to find her family at any turn in order to ensure they don’t follow the same fate. It’s a clever narrative mechanism, and fits the purpose that this personal project was no doubt intended for: to suppress political passion and highlight the mere tragedy that is the loss of human life.
It helps that Jolie has procured a perfect leading lady to accomplish this difficult task of aligning adult audiences to a child-minded viewpoint. Newcomer Sareum Srey Moch brings a devastating pathos to her performance of a child caught up in a seemingly insurmountable situation: one particular scene finds Ung glaring into the inferno of a nearby village caught ablaze from combat, crying out in confusion for her family, the sequence being so wrought with mere emotional panic that you’ll be reaching to embrace Ung in her time of need.
It is these more distressing moments that may cause some viewing difficulty. While more buoyant than other films of the same ilk, First They Killed My Father doesn’t shy away from what is arguably the most abhorrent act one could imagine: the physical and emotional assault of children. While most of the violence committed against adults is kept off screen, Jolie puts the child-focused punishment front and centre: it is far from gratuitous, but it is still a prominent factor and may affect the film’s overall impact for you. For me, it felt like a purposive cry out for the sympathies of Western audiences for those in the East still suffering from totalitarian subduction: in a way, it even stands as a character-driven successor to Pontecorvo’s similarly overwhelming The Battle of Algiers. But it’s at times vehement in its emotional lows so be weary before going in.
Nevertheless, First They Killed My Father is still a film with a strong, beating heart. Jolie imbues an intense humanism into the proceedings that leaves one feeling welcome into Ung’s life. Rather than diving into dour disdain for the Khmer Rouge and their condemnable acts, Jolie stays true to Ung’s narrative, enabling us to feel as one with her loving family, warm at the thought of happier times. With sequences scattered throughout the film, involving flashbacks and visions to times past, experiences once had, all imagined with bright hues and lively camerawork, Jolie never keeps us afar from memories that accentuate and amplify the good that humanity can bury within itself. We cherish these snippets of sweetness whenever they appear on screen, reminding ourselves in the process that not all is lost. This is Jolie’s genius and her delivery of Ung’s story is palpable and essential to encouraging the hopeful humanitarian cause.
Dir: Angelina Jolie
Prd: Angelina Jolie, Rithy Panh, Ted Sarandos, Michael Viera
Scr: Angelina Jolie, Loung Ung
Starring: Sareum Srey Moch, Phoeung Kompheak, Sveng Socheata
DOP: Anthony Dod Mantle
Music: Marco Beltrami
Runtime: 136 Minutes
First They Killed My Father is currently streaming on Netflix.