This is the third time in six years that Cambodia has entered a film about the nightmare of the Khmer Rouge period (1975-1979), during which an estimated 1,700,000 Cambodians were killed. Although Rithy Panh’s The Missing Picture earned a nomination, I thought the best of the three was Lost Loves, in which Kauv Southeary, one of the survivors, wrote the script and played her own mother in the movie.
However, First They Killed My Father, written and directed by Angelina Jolie, is a worthy addition to the sub-genre. Based on the 2000 memoir of survivor Loung Ung, the tragedy and horror is seen from the point-of-view of Loung, who is the five-year-old daughter of a military policeman when the Khmer Rouge sweep into the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. Eventually she is separated from her parents (who are killed) and placed in a labor camp for children. At the age of eight, she is deemed old enough to be trained to become a soldier. It is this section of the film that I found most impressive because it portrays in detail the process of indoctrination.
I have read several critical reviews of First They Killed My Father which, I suspect, were written by people who were blinded by Angelina Jolie’s celebrity and might have seen the film more positively if it had been directed by a debut director. I visited Cambodia in 1988. No one I spoke with brought up the subject of the Khmer Rouge atrocities, but whenever I asked about it, it turned out that every person I met had lost at least one immediate family member. I encountered an entire nation experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder. I recommend watching First They Killed My Father because it’s a well-made film about a subject we shouldn’t forget and one which should always serve as a warning that this could happen in other countries.