First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers
starring Sreymoch Sareum, Kompheak Phoeung, Socheata Sveng, Dara Heng
screenplay by Loung Ung & Angelina Jolie
directed by Angelina Jolie
by Walter Chaw Angelina Jolie gets a lot of shit for being Angelina Jolie. She's mocked for adopting children from places in the world that need more kindness and attention. Her behaviour as a young woman is brought up constantly to shame her. Her recent separation from Brad Pitt is held up as proof of...something. I haven't liked her previous films as director, but I saw no malice in them. I suggested after Unbroken that she should stop making movies, maybe focus on her philanthropy. It's a good thing I don't know what I'm talking about. First They Killed My Father, adapted from Loung Ung's memoir by Ung herself (with Jolie), is a beautiful, elliptical, child's-eye war film that lands somewhere between Empire of the Sun and Come and See. Jolie is the prime example of a child of extreme privilege who has awakened to that privilege, who still stumbles now and again in her more self-aggrandizing moments but for all that hasn't started a weird product catalogue and advised women to steam their vagina. It's galling to hear about sensitivity from someone who's new to it, I think; easier to go after her for an acting exercise reported in VANITY FAIR where she had auditioning Cambodian children hold money, ask them what they would use the money for, and then ask them to react to the money being taken away from them. Who could defend that sort of cruelty? No one could. I'm doubtful it happened that way.
But what if it had? I'm not sure there's a better metaphor for American involvement in foreign wars and the inevitable betrayal that follows when America gets tired of the losing and leaves behind all the people they'd sworn to defend. It's what we do. Now you see us, now you don't. Good luck. My awareness of Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge prior to this is entirely limited to Roland Joffe's The Killing Fields and Spalding Gray's account of its production in Jonathan Demme's unbelievably good Swimming to Cambodia. Bad shit went down, I get it. America bombed a neutral country back to the Stone Age, Vietnam invaded, Cambodia's right-wing* fringe militia the Khmer Rouge took over the country and slaughtered a quarter of the population for not passing their purity tests. First They Killed My Father lands the way it does because a homegrown Khmer Rouge just elected the President. It lands the way it does, too, because it's about how atrocities like this happen while we're watching, how it's not clear what we should do and then it's too late to do anything; how we all live under the illusion that there are institutions in place, safeguards and safety nets and constitutional guarantees, that keep the violent imbecility of Nationalist fundamentalism from levelling an entire generation. But there aren't. The picture works as it does because it's very wise about how helpless parents are in protecting their children from the world.
What if Jolie had auditioned her child actors by asking them to enact a traumatic experience? Isn't re-enacting a recent war, a recent slaughter of millions in your backyard, or a recent betrayal the greater act of traumatic pretending? This is less a defense of the audition than a defense of Jolie: rich, white, beautiful, married to the most beautiful man in the world for a while, so she must be doing some kind of poverty/misery tourism in her adoption of refugee children and her title as a Goodwill Ambassador for the UN Refugee Agency. It sounds made up, doesn't it? Something they give to rich white ladies? Except I don't think it is made up. And I'm pretty sure, from the comfort of my leather office chair, that I don't remotely qualify for whatever it is. She's doing more than I am and maybe that makes me feel ashamed, even angry.
Father opens with little Loung (Sreymoch Sareum) and her family--two brothers, two sisters, Pa (Phoeung Kompheak) and Ma (Sveng Socheata)--in an upscale apartment in Phnom Penh, the product of Pa's position in the Cambodian military. She's eating, dancing, playing with a radio while Pa talks to a visitor, something to do with the Americans leaving the city, but she doesn't care because she's seven and the world is full of people who love her, and kindness, and her things in this place. There's a parade outside; she stands on the balcony and watches it. It's some of Pa's friends. There's another parade behind it where everyone is wearing the same blue-dyed smocks with red-and-white scarves. They have a lot of guns and machetes. Now she's marching with her family after packing her favourite things. The whole city seems like it's marching. Pa tells her to remember that they're "workers," nothing else.
Outside the city, they bump into their uncle, Ma's brother, who's been looking for them. They spend time in his village with his family, but one night when it's late and she can't sleep, Loung overhears them saying they're afraid and that family doesn't matter anymore. The next day they're walking again. To a camp, where they have to build their own house and dye their clothes, and work from the minute they wake up to the minute they pass out from malnutrition and/or exhaustion. Pa goes away and hugs Ma for too long. He hugs Loung for too long, too. When she finds her voice to call after him, he doesn't turn around. The two men walking behind him don't turn around, either. That night, Loung dreams of her father getting clubbed in the back of the head and dumped into a mass grave. She doesn't know what really happened, but it's probably something close. There's more. In the middle of a flight from a Vietnamese assault, Loung realizes that she's standing on a path where she's set landmines and Claymores in the weeks before. She freezes as all around her other refugees are blown apart, dismembered, dead by essentially her hand.
Jolie tells the story from Loung's perspective. She doesn't understand what's happening and that's okay because we don't, either. There's a powerful scene during that raid by the Vietnamese where a firefight breaks out between the VC and the Khmer Rouge. Loung and other Cambodian refugees are caught in the crossfire and start running; for a pregnant moment, it's not clear which direction they'll go. Then they go towards the Vietnamese lines because the Vietnamese, to this point, have not been tormenting the refugees: their countrymen have. Jolie doesn't turn away from the violence. Children are slaughtered, including Loung's toddler sister, whom Loung imagines sits in a mass grave with their dead mother, undiscovered, lost. Jolie finds moments of grace, too, like the one where Pa returns from a day of toil with a pocket full of beetles that the family cooks, secretly, on a tin plate over a small fire. Ma asks what they'd like to eat when they get home and we think back to the banquet they had right before they were forced to evacuate the city. First They Killed My Father is about unrecoverable losses and unimaginable hardship of the kind that happens all the time, just outside the consciousness of most of the West. Jolie has created a movie in which the disorientation of childhood is compounded by the chaos of war. Sareum delivers a controlled performance and Jolie honours it with long, steady shots of Loung watching, processing, finally grieving when the worst is over. It's a very beautiful film of horrific things happening in a garden of earthly delights. Not exactly an adaptation of Bosch, but not far off, either. I know, I didn't give her enough credit, either. Updated: September 15, 2017.
*Though nominally communist in its inception, the Khmer Rouge have, in the words of Alex Harmon, "found the ideological point where right-wing fanaticism and left-wing fanaticism become indistinguishably atrocious." return