Directed by Angelina Jolie
Starring Sareum Srey Moch, Phoeung Kompheak, Sveng Socheata, Mun Kimhak, Heng Dara
Netflix Film Review by Evie Brudenall
Having directed an impressive four features in a six-year period, filmmaker Angelina Jolie has exercised her immense power and influence to get her projects off the ground to mixed reactions. Unbroken was criticised to being overlong and formulaic, By the Sea for being too indulgent; but she has arguably now found material in First They Killed My Father that is a perfect fit for her talents and passion.
Cambodia, 1975. The Khmer Rouge assumes power over the country and embark upon a reign of fear and genocide that’ll last four years and claim the lives of nearly 2 million Cambodians. 5-year-old Loung Ung (Sareum Srey Moch) is forced from her family home and is eventually trained as a child soldier whilst her siblings are sent to labour camps under the communist regime.
First They Killed My Father was a passion project for Jolie who directed, co-produced and co-wrote the picture. Jolie clearly cares deeply about accurately and emotively portraying the Cambodian genocide that took the lives of approximately a quarter of the country’s population, but she doesn’t just place the blame squarely on the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot – Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger are also held accountable after bombing Cambodia, a country of neural position. Whilst Jolie’s revere for this largely undocumented part of history is admirable, there are several visual choices made that are jarring with the verisimilitude, including some disjointed cuts and hazy, neon-lit dream sequences that feel alien in this realistically immersive piece. However, First They Killed My Father is definitely Jolie’s most accomplished directorial effort to date, displaying a complete lack of vanity and total respect for the material for there are no white-saviour tropes and a notable refrain from shoehorning in her own acting appearance.
Narratively, the audience experiences the unfolding events entirely through the innocent perspective of Loung (Sareum Srey Moch) as she surveys with bewilderment the disruption of her once content life. Although she is aware that a significant shift has occurred, Loung does not comprehend the severity or extent to which life has changed, believing that she will soon be able to return home. As officials rifle through her possessions and soldiers as young as Loung bark orders and obscenities at the forlorn families, we feel the sense of ebbing innocence and the forcing of maturity that Loung is experiencing, creating an almost first-hand ordeal. Loung will occasionally be in the company of her father as he discusses pertinent political issues but, like any child, she quickly loses interest and leaves to play with her peers and as a result, the audience is only privy to information and disguised exposition that the young child overhears. To remove us from Loung’s limited point of view, Jolie will often cut to a wide shot that emphasises the scale of the situation but there’s no mistaking First They Killed My Father for anything other than an experiential viewing.
The camera is more often than not trained on Sareum Srey Moch, the film’s young lead and she is a captive protagonist from the very first frame. Sareum’s performance is largely a series of reaction shots as Loung can only helplessly bear witness to the heartbreaking changes happening around her and her star turn is comparable to that of Sonny Pawar’s in Garth Davis’ 2016 Oscar contender Lion. Both characters show a quiet strength and resilience in the face of insurmountable odds and the performances from these first time actors are delivered with experienced ease. Despite the uneven pacing and slow-burn nature of the picture, Sareum is an irrefutable triumph.
Although not a perfect or polished endeavour, First They Killed My Father is a searing depiction of war through a child’s eyes and Jolie has successfully given this under-exploited story a worthy voice and platform.