First They Killed My Father: A Cambodian refugee’s traumatic childhood relived through film.
First They Killed My Father is a film directed by Angelina Jolie based off of the 2000 memoir of the same name by Loung Un, a Cambodian refugee who survived the ruthless Khmer Rouge as a child soldier in the mid-1970’s. Released on Netflix this past month, it has already received high praise from its viewers, and for good reason.
The Cambodian Civil War (1967–1975)and the coexisting Vietnam War (1955–1975) resulted in the installation of the Khmer Rouge dictatorship, a brutal regime that killed nearly two million Cambodians from 1975 to 1979. Loung Un was a young girl at the time and daughter of a high ranking government official. She had a very comfortable life in the capital of Phnom Penh with her mother, father, and five siblings, but those blissful days became distant memories once the Khmer Rouge seized power.
In order to provide historical context for its viewers, the film opens with the famous (and appropriately utilized) Rolling Stone’s song “Sympathy for the Devil” alongside a statement by President Nixon about America’s involvement with Cambodia. Clipped video footage highlights traditional and contemporary Cambodian culture, the ensuing war, and the deaths of civilians and soldiers — a sobering reminder that these events actually happened in recent memory. The newsreel fluidly transitions into a non-diegetic, french commentary about the war (Cambodia was a French protectorate, but gained its independence in 1955) while the screen shifts to the first-person perspective of young Loung walking towards the television in her family’s home in Phnom Penh. As black and white footage of the war flicker on the screen, Loung’s young and curious face reflects back to the viewer. The audience is soon introduced to her entire family one or two at a time as they move in and out of frame, going about their daily musings. Additionally, there is a happy Cambodian tune playing on the radio. (In this film, music is only played during times of reunion, otherwise, there is silence or a low hum or drumbeat that rises and falls in pitch in conjunction with the intensity of the moment.)
Unfortunately, the feel-good images of a happy and whole family are soon replaced with distress and confusion as the Khmer Rouge moves into town. Since this story is told from the perspective of a young girl, the viewer is not given a lot of detailed information about the events that are about to ensue. We follow poor Loung (Sareum Srey Moc) and her family as they hastily pack their essential belongings and embark on an exodus towards the countryside. Multiple jump shots are used in chaotic or unfamilliar environments as if to imitate curious eyes that are quickly scanning left and right. The camera frequently focuses on Loung and her reactions to things young children should never have to endure, such as forced labor, starvation, loss, and the omnious threat of death.
While the film an easy follow, presented chronologically, there is a lack of cues for the passage of time which makes the order of events seem as if they only lasted a few months instead of four years. Also, Loung occasionally has dreams, delusions, or she imagines the fate of her separated family members.These digressions both give insights to her internal thoughts and feelings, but it also slightly disrupts the flow of the story.
Another slightly disrupting, but essential feature is that the entire script is written in Khmer, the Cambodian language. For most people, having to read the subtitles of the movie for its entirety dissuades a lot of viewers from commiting to sit through it. However, the use of language is crucial in the art of story-telling and the preservation of culture and history and I commend Jolie for appreciating and recognizing its signficance in retelling Loung’s story.
Regardless, one can not help but feel sympathy for Loung as she, and millions of others, suffer under the Khmer Rouge. Forced to grow up before her time, she demonstrated extraordinary resilience and intellect. She did what she had to do to survive, even if it meant becoming a child soldier and setting bombs that killed people right infront of her. The fear, pain, grief, and suffering that she felt is hard to imagine, yet the visual endeavor that Jolie took her audience on painted a vivid picture of the reality of genocide and the trauma that it caused a country and its children.
First They Killed My Father was a heart-breaking, powerful, visual experience that did not hold back on retelling the horrors of war and senseless genocide from the memories of a young girl. Loung’s story serves as a blatant reminder to the global community that Cambodia has not forgotten the atrocities that took place less than forty years ago, and neither should we.