Angelina Jolie’s First They Killed My Father is clearly a labour of love and a deeply personal project for her (her adopted son, Maddox, is from Cambodia and served as an executive producer). She has been outspoken in her obligation to use her fame to shed a light on this dark part of Cambodia’s history that sadly, not many of us know about. After America’s invasion of Cambodia (which Jolie criticises through run-of-the-mill news footage), the communist Khmer Rouge who sought to reclaim the country, killed a quarter of Cambodia’s population through starvation, hard labour or execution. It’s a tough subject that Jolie does not take lightly, and refuses to let her audience embark on an easy ride. This is a difficult film, but a necessary one.
Based on Loung Ung’s memoir, the film is told entirely from the perspective of its protagonist (Sareum Srey Moch), who was only five when Khmer Rouge’s mass genocide of Cambodians began. We see the pig-tailed youngster go from a comfortable middle-class life, in which we see her dance in the living room with her siblings, to being forcibly moved from her home of Phnom Penh to a farming camp, then to a combat camp where she trains as a child soldier. While facing horrific decisions, her family also lives under fear that the father’s ties to the government will be exposed, which is punishable by death.
These abrupt shifts could easily feel emotionally-provocative for the sake of it, but thanks to a solid script from Jolie and the real-life Loung Ung, it only feels honest. The young Cambodian actress Sareum Srey Moch is also triumphant as Loung Ung, emoting her devastation and corrupted innocence without saying a word.
The film combines the best elements of Jolie’s previous work, culminating in a film that is confidently and maturely directed, while also maintaining a careful handle on the difficult subject matter without making it emotionally manipulative. Anthony Dod Mantle’s cinematography also captures these events beautifully, alternating from extremely intimate close-ups of Loung’s face with helicopter shots observing the uniform lines of grey-clothed children.
Though, at times, the harrowing images appear to aestheticise the horrors of war. And though, Jolie’s direction has vastly improved since her previous film ‘Unbroken’, the film doesn’t really have anything more to say other than “war is bad”. Despite this, it’s clear how much dedication and hard work was put into making the film as authentic as possible, even going as far as letting the characters speak their native language. By making a film almost entirely spoken in the native Khmer language, the film avoids the white saviour trope that has plagued foreign-set American films. (And really, isn’t it common sense to make your characters speak the native language in a foreign country?)
The film closes off with the quote: “A daughter of Cambodia remembers, so that others may never forget.” Jolie may not have been successful in every aspect, but the film represents a high point in her directing career, and it achieves Jolie’s main objective of educating its audience on Cambodia’s history.