First They Killed My Father
Cambodia's genocide was one of the worst atrocities in human history, and yet somehow it seems to have receded into the annals of Southeast Asian history without much media touching on it other than the 1984 film The Killing Fields. Angelina Jolie seeks to change that by bringing it back into the collective consciousness of a new generation through her latest film on Netflix.
In First They Killed My Father, Jolie's fourth directed film revisits an event that forever wounded a nation and does so through the innocent eyes of a child caught in the midst of it. The film is adapted from the bestselling memoir of Loung Ung and also produced by Oscar nominated documentary filmmaker Rithy Panh, both of whom survived the Khmer Rouge's nightmarish rule of Cambodia from 1975 through 1979. At over two hours in film length, it may seem like a slog to get through such tragic subject matter, but on the contrary the story told here is unlike anything ever produced about the genocide because it does so in a way that captures what it was like to be a Cambodian child during the enslavement and mass executions.
The film begins with a family watching nervously as Khmer Rouge soldiers march into city to the sounds of cheers from locals greeting them as heroes. The film's main character, Ung, doesn't understand why her father orders the family to pack-up and leave, but he knows that as a government employee it marks him as an enemy of the new state being formed. Her father manages to hide his identity but they are still forced to evacuate the city along with everyone else and endure a long march to the countryside to meet their fate at a labor camp. Once they get there, the Khmer Rouge's intentions are revealed when they are told that in the new Cambodia individualism will be abolished and their new purpose in life is to serve Angkar (the state) through working the fields and developing a revolutionary mindset.
Ung and her family eventually deteriorate from starvation and strenuous labor, but as a child she's given different attention from the camp guards. The Khmer Rouge considered older people, monks, doctors, intellectuals, and any other citizen that wasn't a peasant obsolete; so children were thought of as new minds to be molded. Though she's just a young girl, her survival instincts and the realization of the need to adapt to being a prisoner makes her standout to be recruited as a child soldier. Through her training she's indoctrinated into the Khmer Rouge's monstrous philosophies all while desperately trying remember her past life as daughter in a loving family.
The film will draw comparisons to another stellar Netflix one about child soldiers, Beasts of No Nation, but doesn't have the star power of someone like a Idris Elba. Instead, Jolie purposely strides to keep it authentic by filming in Cambodia, using locals to fill roles, and keeping the dialogue in Khmer. Regardless of the minimal dialogue and subtitles, Sareum Srey Moch's performance as Ung is a powerful one that captures what a violent political upheaval looks like from the persepctive of a young girl. There is no explanation of what is happening to the rest of the country or how the world is responding to it, soldiers are vacant and offer little but stern orders & propaganda slogans, and it's not exactly clear how large the scale of death is across the country. Viewers may ask these questions to themselves while watching, but this is a film based on a memoir so a wider view of what's actually going on is only hinted at since Ung was too young to realize it herself.
Of course today we know that the Khmer Rouge were responsible for a death toll estimated to be 2 million and that their atrocities have severely damaged Cambodia's development even today. Land mines planted by Khmer Rouge soldiers still litter jungles and the only real recourse for justice is a United Nations sanctioned tribunal that has taken 11 years and cost over $300 million to find just 4 former Khmer Rouge leaders guilty (The Khmer Rouge's leader, Pol Pot, died before he was ever brought to trial). What might be more unsettling is the fact that many former Khmer Rouge soldiers are now part of local governments, and that former prison guards who tortured innocent women & children freely walk with them as neighbors and live peacefully in retirement.
The tragedy of what happened is so painful for Cambodia that it hasn't even been included in school curriculums until a few years ago. What makes this film important is that it's a big part of a larger effort to ensure younger generations understand what happened in Cambodia and honor the millions of lives that were lost. Even today when genocide is in progress, it doesn't always get the attention it needs until it's too late, so a film like this is just as relevant now as it was back when The Killing Fields was released.
It's important to know the facts of Cambodia's genocide because it's not just a dark chapter of Southeastern Asian history; it's also an impactful lesson on what can happen when unchecked politics emboldens us to dehumanizes our opponents.