The reign of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia is considered to be the purest form of genocide in the cold war era. Estimates for the number of people killed range from 1.7 million to 2.5 million, that number alone is already too large, and yet what makes it even more horrible is that those people were murdered out of a population of 8 million. It is one of the darkest moments in history, and when making a film of a topic like this one it is important to treat the subject with utmost sensitivity and respect.
This was already done before, when the Academy Award winning film The Killing Fields came out in 1984. And yes that movie was good and they did treat the subject with respect.
With that in mind, I would say that First They Killed My Father, Angelina Jolie's film about the Khmer Rouge genocide improved on what that classic did and she may actually have churned out a better movie!
This is her masterpiece, and this is probably the moment that Angelina Jolie the director eclipses Angelina Jolie the movie star! But of course none of that would be possible without the autobiographical book written by Cambodian native Luong Ung who also wrote the screenplay. It is her story after all, which recounts her experience as child under the brutal Khmer Rouge regime.
But it is amazing how Jolie was able to bring that to the screen, and the fact that she chose that story to direct and produce while staying true to its origin. The problem with Hollywood or western interpretations of this genre, is that often times the movie is told largely from western eyes. The Killing Fields did this with the first half of the movie.
Jolie chose a different route, she selected a tale from purely Cambodian eyes, and through the entire movie the camera never strayed from young Luong played by the talented Sareum Srey Moch. And I have to say this child actor, is a casting coup. She was able to capture the screen, and perfectly portrayed the innocence of a child torn from her comfortable upper class lifestyle, and then brought into the chaos of war.
For being a film about genocide and war, it does not depend on carnage and brutality. Of course there are glimpses of it, but it's usually in the backdrop, and you could feel the menace without seeing it. A lot of it comes down to the individual performance of Sareum and the rest of the cast. In whispers they share their fears, and with one look the atrocities are painted on their faces.
This is not a movie that makes you feel queasy. Quite the opposite, it is beautifully shot. First They Killed My Father was filmed on location in Cambodia and in a stroke of genius Jolie chose to use panoramic vistas, and sweeping camera pans of the countryside instead of following Hollywood fare of devastation in the jungle. The landmine scene was noteworthy in particular wherein she shot the scene from up above instead of depending only on close ups. The beauty contrasted with the ugliness of what was going on, and yet it makes you think of how horrible it is. It's like mocking our perspective of how we view people's suffering from afar.
Hollywood could learn a lot from how Jolie handled the material. The movie is entirely in Khmer and she took in great lengths to make sure she got the culture right. Of course she has had years of immersing in it, first of all she holds dual American and Cambodian citizenship and actually maintains a residence within the country. Also her adopted son Maddox is Cambodian, so she has a strong connection to the country.
But still was able to prove that you do not need to shoehorn a western perspective into a story in order to make a great film. By letting the experience stand on its origin and culture, she made a much more compelling piece of art.
Now I wonder will Angeline Jolie be the second woman to win an Academy Award for Best Director? Surely she deserves at least a nomination.
First They Killed My Father is currently available for streaming on Netflix and it will have a limited run in select theaters.
First They Killed My Father Trailer