Sixteen years ago, while filming in Cambodia, Angelina Jolie picked up a $2 memoir called First They Killed My Father. At this week’s Women in the World Summit in Toronto, Jolie said the book—written by Loung Ung, who survived the Khmer Rouge regime as a child—”taught me about the war.” She later worked with Ung to ban landmines, which still litter Cambodia today, and the two soon became close friends. In fact, Jolie decided to adopt her oldest son, Maddox, from Cambodia thanks to Ung’s support.
Now, Jolie, Ung, Maddox (who earned an exec producer credit for the film) and Netflix are inviting audiences into Cambodia to witness one of the darkest periods in the nation’s history—the genocide the killed nearly a quarter of the country’s population between 1975 and 1979. In an effort to keep this story authentic to its people, First They Killed My Father was filmed entirely in Cambodia and the dialogue is mostly in Khmer, with a few scenes in French (the language spoken by government officials at the time). The cast is also entirely comprised of Cambodian locals, including Srey Moch Sareum, the young girl who plays Ung and whom Jolie nicknamed “Meryl” because she was such a great actor (trust, you will fall in love with her).
First They Killed My Father premiered at TIFF and is set to begin streaming on Netflix on September. 15—but while this film is beautifully shot and artfully told, it is not as powerful as it could have been nor is it as powerful as the book on which its based.
The Coles Notes catch-up:
The film begins in Phnom Penh in 1975. Loung Ung is five, the second youngest in a family of seven children in a middle-class family headed by her father, who works for the government. As we watch Ung dance through her family’s apartment, she stops to catch a glimpse of a newscast speaking about the rise of the communist Khmer Rouge party that promised to reclaim and rebuild Cambodia after U.S. bombings. Ung looks outside and sees chaos in the streets as Khmer militants arrive in the city with guns raised, telling people they must leave for the countryside because the Americans are planning to bomb the city. Ung’s family grabs whatever they can carry and leaves their home, beginning what will be four years of hardship that not all of them will survive.
“You see a five-year-old happy child become a nine-year-old victim of war,” says Jolie, and in addition to that, audiences get a sense of what life was like for millions of people as they endured starvation, violence and intense labour under the Khmer Rouge regime—as seen through the eyes of a child.
TBH, this is what we thought:
I really went in expecting to love this movie. I had my tissue box ready and heart full of feels from hearing Jolie and Ung speak about the story and filming process at the Women in the World Summit, so I sat down ready to empty my tear ducts for two hours. Jolie does a careful, and completely intentional job, of showing the audience only what young Ung (Sareum) sees. When she is riding in the back of a farmer’s cart, our view is of the rolling rump of the cow pulling the cart along rather than over its head, as an adult would see.
Crucial information, such as details of what the Khmer Rouge’s actions and tactics, are given in snippets of overheard conversations or radio broadcasts as Ung runs through a room or sits on her father’s knee, but otherwise, the audience is left to infer what is going on. While this forces the audience to experience a level of confusion similar to how Ung must have felt, many of the scenes would have been more powerful with context—and it would’ve helped to move the film along.
Jolie herself admits that when she first went to Cambodia, she realized how little she knew about the country and what Cambodians had been through, and this film will make you feel the same way. If you haven’t read the book or done some pre-movie research on the Khmer Rouge, a lot of the film’s nuances, such as the long stretches of time where the family was literally walking and living on whatever food they could scavenge, which seems like only a matter of days in the film. Important details, such as the threat of rape in the camps and the details like the fact that Ung’s 10-year-old brother Kim endured beatings from the chief’s children in order to bring extra rations back to his family are left out. Also, since we only see the film through Ung’s eyes, we don’t get a sense of the broader implications the Khmer Rouge’s regime had on Cambodia, such as how soldiers mutilated statues at Angkar Wat and riddled the countryside with landmines, but kept no maps of where they were buried so they are still being discovered today.
Instead, the film at times feels repetitive and the pace feels slow: a big contrast to the page-turning memoir. The basics of this film—seeing a horrific war through the true-life experience of a child—meant that First They Killed My Father was always going to be powerful, but it really could’ve benefitted from some kind of narrator or inner monologue as well as additional historical context throughout, similar to what is done in the book to help propel the story forward and do Ung’s memoir justice.
You’ll love it if:
You read the book. The film doesn’t have nearly as much depth, but if you’ve read Ung’s memoir, the film visually complements Ung’s haunting words.
Skip it if:
You are squeamish. While it is far from the most gory war film I’ve seen, it is still a movie about the atrocities of genocide and includes scenes of violence and multiple instances of injuries caused by landmines. If you do choose to skip it, however, make sure you read the book.
Watch it with:
Someone you can cry with, because there will be tears.
Pair it with:
Additional research into Cambodian history. For instance:
“Key facts on the Khmer Rouge” (Al Jazeera)
This primer on Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge (History Channel)
“A timeline of the Khmer Rouge regime and its aftermath” (CNN)
This photo essay that depicts the actual rise and fall of the Khmer Rouge (Time)
How you’ll feel after streaming it on Netflix:
(Smile included because *spoiler alert* this heart-wrenching story does have somewhat of a happy ending)
How much did we heart it?
(Three out of five)
The Glass Castle Review: A Gritty Family Drama That Does the Book Proud
Landline Review: A Tangled ’90s Throwback That Misses The Mark
Battle of the Sexes Review: Clown Gets Served by Competent Woman & It’s Glorious