We no longer speak of rich or poor.
As the Vietnam War raged, the neutral country of Cambodia was thrown into chaos. The United States was bombing the countryside to destroy as many Viet Cong-backed forces (Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge) possible while the military dictatorship they backed (Lon Nol’s Khmer Republic) ruled after a 1970 coup against the former Prince. But just as Saigon fell and the war came to a close, the Americans packed up and left. They abandoned the ruling party, ignored the destruction they wrought and the citizens they mobilized, and allowed the Khmer Rouge to enter Phnom Penh and wrest away control for an oppressively totalitarian Communist regime. Anyone with allegiance to Lon Nol, their families, and other ethnic and religious minorities were murdered in mass graves known as the Killing Fields.
This is the backdrop to Loung Ung‘s harrowing tale of survival First They Killed My Father. Her father was one of Lon Nol’s generals, a man fully aware of what was coming and ready to exit the capital with his family without letting the Khmer Rouge know his occupation. She would move from labor camp to labor camp before being trained as a child soldier setting land mines and firing guns—all at seven years-old. Ung witnessed the death and despair everywhere she turned whether from “re-educations,” starvation, or the stubborn desire to throw away all foreign goods including medicine. She was forced to say goodbye to family members that she would never see again. And like anyone who experienced such atrocities first-hand, she remembers it all.
No stranger to prison camps after her last film Unbroken and an adoptive mother of a Cambodian orphan, it’s hardly surprising that Angelina Jolie would gravitate towards the project to co-write with Ung and direct. But don’t assume that means she lends everything a subjective lens with overt exposition or skewed vantage because this film is strictly told from a child’s delicately precarious perspective. The camera is almost always placed at the sightline of Loung (as played by Sareum Srey Moch) with actors often looking directly at us as though we are seeing through her eyes. The odd angles and close-up nature of this effect can be disorienting at first with seasick potential, but it’s not long before you adjust and place yourself into her cautiously curious headspace.
From there we simply travel with Loung as she moves farther and farther away from the comfortable city life being the child of a general affords. We see the love mixed with helplessness etched on her parents’ faces (Phoeung Kompheak‘s Pa and Sveng Socheata‘s Ma) and the confusion on those of her siblings. Everyone is treading water with no clue as to what may happen, only what they must do to remain anonymously off the Khmer Rouge’s radar as anything other than laborers. But it’s Loung who cannot help herself from discovering all that she can by peering through cracks in the leafy walls of their home and gazing upon the sights an adult never could without being accused of stepping out of his/her prostrate position.
We see everything: bombings, beatings, tears, and sacrifice. We watch the world topple in on itself with Loung unable to stop each lasting image from burning onto the back of her eyelids. She begins having visions of fantasy (walking in on a delicious dinner spread set for her captors) and nightmare (the inevitable death of a loved one left to rot atop a pile of strangers). This sense of context and future reveals her intelligence and strength to the point where Loung becomes spokesperson for her slightly older siblings when set on a path towards the unknown. She’s the one picked to bolster the Communists’ ranks rather than remain on the farm. She’s the one who can be trusted to carry out horrors her mind can’t yet comprehend.
It’s the latter that leads to the climactic sequence of all-out pandemonium courtesy of an attack. As fire ignites and bodies fall, Loung runs with eyes open to know who is friend and foe. Eventually, however, she must confront the carnage created by her own hands. Jolie pulls no punches as limbs fly and the injured crawl through minefields set for the enemy but used on their own. The moment of recognition on Loung’s face as far as each explosion coming from the ground rather than the sky will break your heart. This is when we’re made to realize how regimes such as the Khmer Rouge enslave their youth into becoming unwitting killers rather than prisoners. These children aren’t just being used; they’re also systematically being transformed.
Sareum Srey Moch wonderfully carries the film on her back—especially when left on her own without her parents to shield and protect her. It’s a lot to ask someone so young and without acting experience, but her fear, sadness, and determination are authentic from start to finish. We get a sense of what she’s thinking even before we see the manifestation of her memory changing a horrific scene into a personal one with a familiar face superimposed above a stranger’s. It’s as though we’re watching PTSD manifest in real-time as her Loung is pulled from tragedy to tragedy with little hope of the cycle ever ceasing. Her mind is constantly triggered by sight and sound to re-contextualize instances her former innocence glossed over at the time.
That’s ultimately what First They Killed My Father delivers: a loss of innocence. It provides a look at war from non-combatants, a people scooped up in a regime’s quest to dismantle and destroy everything its predecessor touched without remorse. And it’s not solely an empathetic notion of abstractly understanding what Loung experienced since the United States is intrinsically linked to this terror. This is the cost of our meddling in situations entered with hubris rather than necessity. This is the collateral damage of our wanting to win a war rather than protect those caught within it. But it also shows us the resiliency of youth and the possibility of creating something meaningful out of something so appalling. Only through survivors’ stories can we hope to evolve.
courtesy of Netflix