By Josiah Wampfler
First They Killed My Father is a beautiful, devastating experience. As we witness the horrors of the Cambodian genocide, director Angelina Jolie shows us the power of telling stories like these through the eyes of a child. That child is five year-old Loung Ung, a woman who would go on to become a human rights activist and author of the book the film is based on. Through her eyes, we see the love of family, the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge, the beauty of Cambodia and the resilience of its people.
Jolie has said that she made the film in part because she wanted her Cambodian son Maddox to understand the history of his people. She struggled with whether it was her place to tell this story, but it was very important to her that Maddox and the Cambodian people were deeply involved in the filmmaking process and that she had the approval of the country. Her respect for the country and the gravity of telling such a story is what makes the film so powerful. Told entirely in the Khmer language, staring an entirely Cambodian cast and using as many Cambodian crew members as possible, First They Killed My Father is a film that was not only personal for Jolie, but for the people of Cambodia as well. Because of this, and because it is a story many are unaware of, the film manages to be something that many other films strive for but few achieve: It is important.
That respect is not just seen in the credits, but felt throughout the film. And that starts with how it looks. Unlike many other films about tragedies like this set in war-torn nations, First They Killed My Father does not shy away from some truly gorgeous cinematography. Through Loung’s eyes, we see a Cambodia that is breathtakingly beautiful. We see the land as a child would: vibrant and filled with a sense of wonder and nostalgia. This beauty that we see mainly toward the beginning of the film is also what makes the ugliness to come so devastating.
Besides the color and the beauty though, Jolie quite literally tells the story through the eyes of Loung. The first time we see the her is in the reflection of a television. It is a point of view shot that immediately sets the visual language of the film. Through most of the film, though not always directly point of view, we see events as our main character is seeing them. Almost every shot is designed to be not only from the height of Loung, but with her sensibilities in mind. Occasionally there are some incredible drone shots that give us a better sense of what is going on, but Jolie mainly sticks to Loung’s perspective to great effect.
And what an incredible young girl they were able to find to portray Long Ung! In a year full of incredible child actor performances, Sareum Srey Moch gives one of the best. The progression she shows over the film is impressive for an actor so young. Through much of the first half, Long is very passive. She can only look on as her life proceeds before her and the horrors mount. But as the film goes on she starts to understand more of what she is seeing and becomes more reactive, both through action and expressing emotion. This all culminates in two extremely emotional scenes in which Moch delivers awards worthy performances.
In fact, the entire film is awards worthy. From direction, to acting, to screenplay and cinematography, First They Killed My Father was not only an emotionally resonant and important film, it was a really well-made one as well. So why did it miss out on any love from the Academy? Why was it’s only major nomination at The Golden Globes? It may because of its difficult subject, but it could also be because of the way Jolie chooses to open the film. Though the United States is rarely explicitly spoken of in the film, First They Killed My Father purposefully starts with archival footage detailing how the U.S. war in Vietnam spilled over into Cambodia. We hear denials from President Nixon, but the point is clear: The United States had a hand creating the environment for what follows.
That is why telling the story through the eyes of this child is so powerful. As the archival footage disappears from the screen, we fade up into an image of a hallway. The camera floats along, low to the ground and rounds the corner to reveal a television. As news of the impending Khmer Rouge takeover plays, we see Loung Ung for the first time as her reflection appears on the screen. Jolie cuts in to make us look into her eyes. What we are about to witness is the loss of innocence for this girl and for her country. And what we are about to witness, our own government had a hand in creating.