“First They Killed My Father” - Angelina Jolie (2017)

First They Killed My Father (2017) depicts the harrowing experiences of a small child trying to survive the democide inflicted on the Cambodian people by the Khmer Rouge during 1975-79. It is based on the real-life experiences of co-scriptwriter Loung Ung, as recounted in her bestselling memoir First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers (2000). 
The film was directed and co-scripted by famous American screen siren Angelina Jolie, who has her own significant personal connections with Cambodia. She adopted Cambodian infant Maddox Chivan in 2002, and she has since been active in humanitarian causes in the country, which have led her to being granted Cambodian citizenship in 2005.  So it was not surprising that Jolie would strive for maximal authenticity by having the film shot in Cambodia with an all-Cambodian cast and crew. 

What Jolie has achieved is an intense first-person account of what life was like in the hell created by the Khmer Rouge’s “Killing Fields” [1].  There is no real attempt to show an objective context of what happens.  The viewer is only offered Loung Ung’s ever-changing chaotic circumstances and limited horizon.  And there are no voiceovers telling the viewer what Loung may be thinking.  In fact apart from a few nightmarish dreams and visions, there is no coverage of Loung’s internal state. Instead the viewer sees the horrific world right in front of Loung as she sees it.

The effort to provide first-person experiential authenticity does run into some cinematic difficulties, though.  Throughout especially the earlier parts of the film, cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle’s (Slumdog Millionaire, 2008) camera work subjects the viewer to unsteady handheld moving-camera shots using wide-angle lenses, frequently connected by jump-cuts.  This is presumably done to convey a feeling of even more dynamic immediacy, but the net effect is disorienting and disconcerting – it only serves the opposite effect of distancing the viewer from what is shown.  Nevertheless, Jolie’s overall effort in the film to present Loung’s violence-fraught immediacy is laudable; and over the course of the film, it does generally bring the viewer into her world of experience.  The resulting account that Jolie and her production team fashioned deserves comparison with the great films showing innocent children in war settings, such as Rene Clement’s Forbidden Games (Jeux Interdits, 1952).

Note that although the film’s narrative does confine itself to Loung Lu’s immediate circumstances and eschews coverage of an objective context, the film opens with a brief context-setting prologue that does make a worthy point.  To the blaring soundtrack music of the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil”, the viewer is shown a montage of (a) documentary newsreel footage showing the US government’s early-1970s bombing of eastern Cambodia, which was a neutral country in the Viet Nam conflict and (b) intercut statements from President Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger denying that such action was taking place.  Although the circumstances surrounding the rise of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge to power are complex and cannot be attributed to a single direct action, this opening prologue points to a basic problem with interventionist American military activities.

It is a conceit among American liberal interventionists, and more recently “East Coast” neoconservatives [2], that when the American military intervenes and overthrows a corrupt dictator, then the “disrupted” society, now freed from the dictator and his family, will magically self-organize into a liberal democracy.  They believe that liberal democratic order will naturally arise from disruption, and so disruption, by itself, is deemed a virtue.  But this view runs counter to what historians have observed over the centuries [3,4,5].  When human societies first become more organized into larger units, there are three general stages through which they must pass in sequence (and thus they are not ordinarily skipped over):
  1. Warlords.  The first stage is one of coercive rule by brute force on the part of gangsters.  There is very little in the way of accepted normative behavior or activities in accordance with human institutions. Warlords are often consumed in mutually destructive internecine wars against each other.
  2. Monarchy or Dictatorship. In this stage there is an organized ruling hierarchy topped by a sovereign. The succession of rule after a sovereign’s death is formally specified. There is also normally a privileged class that has formally authorized powers over the rest of society and also possesses a disproportionate share of the wealth.  However, there are also some written laws (often established by decree) and some institutions that help curb low-level violence and maintain order.
  3. Democratic Republic.  At this stage, social rule is a public matter and managed by elected officials.  There is a general rule of law, with laws established by elected representatives.  There are also inclusive, norm-based institutions that help maintain a fully integrated and productive social fabric.
A foreign military intervention intended to overthrow a Stage 2 dictatorship and pave the way for a Stage 3 republic often backfires, because it destroys whatever existing institutional infrastructure may be in place.  With the existing institutional infrastructure, imperfect though it may have been, now in ruins, the invaded state reverts to a Stage 1 warlord society  – it is now further away from Stage 3 than before.  This is what happened in Afghanistan and Iraq, and this is what transpired in Cambodia, too.   Jolie’s prologue reminds us that US destructive intervention in the area and subsequent abrupt withdrawal facilitated the collapse of the Stage 2 Lon Nol government and opened the door to the Stage 1 Khmer Rouge warlords.

After the prologue’s thematic montage, the film’s narrative account of Loung Ung’s experiences opens in 1975 when the US military pulled out of Cambodian capital Phnom Penh.  Lon Nol’s government troops were no match for the oncoming Khmer Rouge forces, who quickly invaded the city and took charge.  The city people did not know much about the cryptic Khmer Rouge, who called themselves the “Angkar” (“The Organization”), but many were ready to accept them as liberators. 

Among these city people was Loung Ung’s upper-middle-class family, comprising her father, Seng Im (“Pa”) Ung (played by Phoeung Kompheak), her mother Ay (“Ma”) Ung (Sveng Socheata), and their seven children, among whom was five-year-old Loung Ung (Sareum Srey Moch).  Pa Ung had been a mid-level officer in the government’s military police, and he knew that if the conquering Khmer Rouge were to become aware of his background, he would be executed on the spot.  So when the Khmer Rouge ordered an immediate and complete evacuation of Phnom Penh, Pa Ung had no choice to but to meekly acquiesce and pretend to be a common laborer.

But everything here is seen through the eyes, not of Pa Ung, but of the young and precocious Loung Ung.  Since Loung’s  parents are trying to soothe their children and conceal their desperate circumstances, this gives an overall haunting, almost surreal, mood to the film [1].  The viewer sees the parents’ assumed placidity, knowing that it is a parental mask, and at the same time the viewer empathizes with Loung from her more naive and circumscribed perspective.  The overall effect is to heighten the viewer’s concern for the innocent young girl.  Thus, for example, everyone was immediately compelled to give up all their private possessions, since all private property was now abolished by the new Cultural-Revolution-inspired forces. When this happens to them, Pa and Ma Ung calmly surrender everything they have, but their children are distressed to part with some of their favorite toys and dresses. 

Like all the others, the Ung family is herded out of the city and into scattered rural work camps, where they are ordered to work like slaves.  These are the fabled “Killing Fields” of the Khmer Rouge, but we don’t see much dramatized violence.  Instead we see the grim, impoverished circumstances that the real Loung Ung experienced in her early youth.  When we watch her and her mates rejoice at the chance of roasting and eating a snake or to consume roasted beetles, we get a more encompassing feeling for the low state to which they have been brought. 

Step by step their desperate situation becomes ever more desperate, and Loung struggles to adapt.  Some of her older siblings are taken away to be conscripted into the Khmer Rouge fighting forces.  Her father is seized and taken away by Khmer Rouge agents for some remote assignment. He is never to be seen again, although Loung has a nightmarish vision of her father being executed by the agents.  She and her remaining siblings are urged by her now almost hysterically anxious mother to escape individually from their dysfunctional and starved work camp and to try to find haven in some other work camps.  Loung does so, posing to her new work camp seniors as an orphan.  By the time she is seven years old, she is being trained to be a soldier and kill the enemy, which by now has become the Vietnamese, with a lance.  She has become a trained killer.  Later Loung wanders into her old work camp out from which her mother had sent her and her other remaining siblings, and she finds it completely deserted – her mother has vanished.  Still later Loung has another nightmarish vision of her mother having died of starvation or disease.

All the while, Loung is managing to survive, but her once innocent smile has gradually transformed into an anxious scowl.  We see on the contours of her youthful face the grim outline of what is happening to her and others like her.  Child actress Sareum Srey Moch is remarkably effective in the role here of Loung Ung.  She doesn’t overdramatize things and at all times maintains a countenance that is realistic, convincing, and emotionally moving.  We see reflected in her face the struggles of an innocent youth trying to live with and comprehend the incomprehensible – the inhumanity of ruthless oppression and war.

With respect to the rest of the all-Cambodian cast, the acting is also quite good.  This is particularly so of the low-key performances of Loung’s parents, Phoeung Kompheak (Pa Ung) and Sveng Socheata (Ma Ung), who try to evoke an aura of soothing parental calm in front of their children in the face of increasingly desperate circumstances.
First They Killed My Father does manage to end on something of a positive note – Loung ultimately survives.  But this was not a matter of human triumph, but merely the fortunate outcome of one person in a lottery with devastatingly negative odds.

  1. Matt Zoller Seitz, “First They Killed My Father”, RogerEbert.com, 15 September 2017).    
  2. Jacob Heilbrunn, “Donald Trump’s Brains”, The New York Review of Books, (21 December 2017).
  3. Douglass C. North, John Joseph Wallis, and Barry R. Weingast, Violence and Social  Orders, Cambridge University Press (2009).
  4. Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson, Why Nations Fail, Crown Business (2012).
  5. Andrew J. Bacevich, “What Will It Take for America to Wake Up to the Horrifying Reality of US Warfare?”, The Nation, (11 December 2017).   

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