Angelina Jolie’s latest directorial effort, First They Killed My Father, captures the horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia from 1975-1979 through the eyes of a girl who lived it.
The film, written by Jolie and Loung Ung (based on her memoir of the same name), is a war story told through the eyes of 5-year-old Loung as she experiences the harsh realities of her time.
In the city of Phnom Penh, Loung (Sareum Srey Moch) is a typical kid, playing with her siblings and being the apple of her father’s eye. Pa Ung (Phoeung Kompheak) is a high-ranking government official so the family is pretty well off. All that changes when the Khmer Rouge army comes to town demanding evacuation in preparation for a fictitious bombing by the Americans. Thousands are forced to flee, including Loung and her family. Along the way, their possessions are slowly taken away from them in the name of Communist ideals. When they reach the forced-labor camp, they have to dye all their clothes so that every looks alike. After all, everyone is equal.
The Ung family is slowly separated, first when the older children are taken away to become soldiers, then when Pa is killed. As the situation becomes more and more dire, Ma (Sveng Socheata) tells the three remaining children to separate in order to survive. Loung and her sister go to one work camp and their brother to another. As the sibling who seems to be the strongest, Loung is chosen to become a child soldier and learns things that no child should know including how to plant land mines.
First They Killed My Father shows the beauty of the Cambodian landscape against the ugliness of the genocide that happened under the Khmer Rouge, which resulted in the deaths of a quarter of the Cambodian population. By telling the story through the remembrances of a small child, the film takes the viewer right along with Loung as she takes in all that happens to her and her family. When unlikely characters smile at her, she smiles back because that’s what kids do. She doesn’t fully understand the implications of what’s going on but she knows that it’s not right because her family keeps getting smaller and smaller. Still, she does what she’s told in order to survive, including the “re-education” that takes place at the camp.
The film is available on Netflix and I was watching it as the remnants of Hurricane Jose were hitting Staten Island with heavier than normal winds. With 15 minutes left in the film, our Internet went down and I was left hanging, wondering what was going to happen. Thankfully, online service came back after a couple hours and I finished the film. The intensity of the war depicted on my screen clashed with the innocence of Loung and the other children in the film and I found myself praying for kids today caught in conflicts and wars they don’t understand.
It seems like Loung Ung was able to learn from her experiences and become the advocate for human rights that she is today. Our pasts may or may not be as full of suffering or as dramatic as Loung’s but I think the past can teach us. We can be better people if we remember where we came from, learn from our experiences, especially our sufferings and let them teach us to be more compassionate to those who suffer now.