First They Killed My Father, as reviewed by Amy Kellestine

The ridiculous amount of cold and wind and rain that suddenly arrived on my Edmonton doorstep this fall inspired me to peruse the latest releases on Netflix instead of taking a trip to the theatre. And so, this month, I watched First They Killed My Father.

The movie is based on the memoir by Loung Ung and her experience as a child during the Cambodian genocide under the rule of Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. Directed by Hollywood megastar Angelina Jolie, herself an adoptive mother of a Cambodian child, one can’t help but wonder about the true intended audience for the film.

The film opens as Nixon declares that American forces are being pulled out of Cambodia and Vietnam. This creates an opportunity for the communist regime known as Khmer Rouge to step in and begin their reign of terror. The film unfolds from the perspective of Luong (played by the innocent Sareum Srey Moch) as her family, and everyone else in Phnom Penh, are driven out of the city by armed guards. Once in the countryside they are stripped of their possessions and dignity, put to work as laborers, and fed gruel while they grow beautiful vegetables that supposedly get shipped off to the front to feed soldiers. As you can imagine, conditions worsen over time as the conflict drags out and the ego of the regime grows.

I can’t honestly say that I “liked” this movie because of the dark nature of the subject matter. But I can say that I think the movie is an important one to see, particularly because similar atrocities continue to occur worldwide. And I certainly admired a number of style choices made by Jolie and her directorial team.

First, the entire cast (with the exception of one glimpse of either a “western” tourist or reporter early on) is Cambodian. There was no whitewashing. Period. Second, the characters spoke their native language, Khmer, throughout. Additionally, I was really, really amazed at the tension I felt throughout the film. The haunting soundtrack and paced cinematography from the perspective of Luong meant that I repeatedly had to remind myself to breathe. I also appreciated the subtle and tasteful treatment of violence. It was never gratuitous, but found a safe way to tell a gruesome story. I can’t help but imagine Angelina keeping her son’s heart in mind.

One issue I did notice was a slight delay in the subtitles on my TV. Not sure if I can blame that on my own operator error or if that was a style choice… but it was occasionally distracting.

I heard about the movie from a friend whose parents survived the genocide and emigrated to Canada. Knowing someone who had a direct connection to this largely untold story made the movie even more important to see for me. Without spoiling the ending, let’s suffice to say that First They Killed My Father is a carefully crafted commentary on a part of Cambodia’s history and well worth a couple of hours curled up on the couch to see how hope is possible, in even the most dire circumstances.

Amy Kellestine headshotAmy Kellestine is an educator, engineer, Arati life coach and entrepreneur living in Edmonton, Alberta. She spends her free time camping, gardening, and volunteering for causes such as Cystic Fibrosis and nature conservation. She is a devoted mother and is passionate about helping others and writing.