‘First They Killed My Father’ Review: Angelina Jolie’s Cambodian film is a haunting, emotional testament to historical trauma
In First They Killed My Father, Angelina Jolie’s adaptation of Loung Ung’s memoir of the Cambodian genocide, the sentence “A daughter of Cambodia remembers so others may never forget” appears on-screen — a perfect summation of the hauntingly emotional film. Though it is told from Ung’s perspective (played by Sareum Srey Moch), the Netflix film becomes the story of Cambodia as a whole, a recollective testament to an entire country’s trauma. The words aren’t etched on a stone monument, but a filmic one.
The film’s casting process was criticized for being exploitative, but whether or not Jolie’s exercise in improvisation was as innocent as she claims, the film deserves recognition as a true Cambodian production while many Hollywood films are marred by whitewashing and white savior tropes. Jolie wrote the script with Ung, and worked closely with acclaimed Cambodian filmmaker Rithy Panh to ensure the film’s authenticity — First They is largely spoken in Khmer, and even the closing text is written in Khmer.
Nevertheless, the film doesn’t rely on its dialogue, preferring to convey the horrors of war through its own visual language. We aren’t told about the titular murder, but see it through Ung’s recurring nightmare, one of many dream sequences that communicate Ung’s interiority. This emphasis on visual storytelling comes at the expense of developing Ung as a character, but her seeming numbness makes sense in a world so rife with horrors.
First They Killed My Father also includes several overhead shots which underscore the notion that this film is about the entirety of Cambodia. In one such shot, dozens of makeshift campfires illuminate the families gathered around them, defying a seemingly invincible darkness.
Even though the film is often tough to watch, moments like these tastefully suggest that love and empathy always win the day. Later in the film, Ung stands before the withered shell of a captured Khmer Rouge soldier. She stares him down, neither condemning nor condoning his actions, but seeing him as someone’s father, a person capable of love but manipulated to hate. The film’s success lies in its belief in humanity’s capacity for goodness, putting the onus on the viewer to validate that belief.
Featured image via Netflix.