Often, an actor turned director can lead to a dangerous sort of vanity project. But in the case of Angelina Jolie, her humanitarian nature genuinely extends to her relatively young career as a writer/director. Her four films in this role run the gamut from biopic to marital drama to historical horror. Her latest and best, “First They Killed My Father,” falls into the latter category, a harrowing sensory experience and condemnation of genocide through the eyes of a child — the true life story of human rights activist Loung Ung. Loung Ung herself co-wrote the film (based on her book of the same name), firmly cementing the film in her own point of view.
The year is 1975. Reeling from the conclusion of the Vietnam War, Southeast Asia is in chaos. A populist regime called the Khmer Rouge swiftly rises to power in Cambodia, gradually taking over the country — a quarter of whose population they would systematically exterminate throughout the reign. Ung (Sareum Srey Moch) is five years old at the time, her father (Phoeung Kompheak) an upper-class government worker who flees with his family upon the Khmer’s arrival in their city.
“They are so poor,” Ung remarks as her family arrives at her uncle’s village, now destitute and posing as laborers rather than the city officials they truly were. As they travel from camp to camp, their situation becomes more dire. Ung observes the atrocities inflicted by the Khmer Rouge — monks beaten, citizens starved, laborers worked to near death. These atrocities begin to infect her life, as her older siblings are taken away and, as the title states, her father is killed. What follows is a soul-shaking journey as Ung is forced by her mother (Sveng Socheata) to find safety on her own.
The film’s most brilliant moments are its opening minutes, which act as a thesis statement for the two hours to come. A collage of documentary and newsreel footage is presented, particularly involving the Nixon administration’s failed strategies and the Khmer’s use of those failures in its rhetorical rise to power. Thus, Jolie makes a provocative, politically-charged statement from the get-go, directly implicating Nixon’s foreign policy failures in providing a platform for the Khmer’s genocidal actions. As a final nail in the coffin, the newsreel transitions to the Ung family’s television, with Ung staring into it, her gaze reflecting back on the modern day viewer — perhaps one disconnected from the film’s events by decades and oceans.
Jolie deserves major props for her authenticity in bringing Ung’s extraordinary story to the screen. In addition to Ung’s involvement with the film, Jolie’s aesthetic choices emphasize Ung’s subjectivity. Often, the camera takes on a first-person perspective — the sound mix also flows in and out according to what she can directly hear. In addition, this is not a Hollywood retelling with some version of a shoehorned white savior complex. The film’s subjects speak entirely in Khmer with a cast of native non-actors, with Sareum Srey Moch giving one of the most extraordinary child performances in recent memory as Ung. She lives in heartbreaking silence, her eyes and face under intense scrutiny by the camera, reminiscent of the great silent movie stars of old.
At a heavy 136 minutes, the film’s only major issues could be resolved by a bit of trimming. The narrative flow isn’t intentionally slow but begins to feel unnecessarily so when the momentum becomes repetitive in a series of similar scenes. The most problematic sections are the recurring dream sequences and clunky flashbacks. Sure, these add to Ung’s subjectivity, but, in truth, they only come across as tonal missteps. For a film otherwise rooted in the horrors of reality, such fantastical moments feel intensely out of place and only serve to bring the film to a temporary halt.
Premiering on Netflix and in select theaters, it’s a wonder that someone was willing to give Jolie this kind of budget and platform support for such an ambitious project, let alone one whose ambition isn’t only a means of showing off. Even though Netflix has several kinks to work out in its problematic distribution process (especially regarding its theatrical arm), it must be applauded for helping bring a vision like this to life, a vision of historical tragedy that begs to be seen so it is never forgotten or repeated.