The quality of the films debuting on Netflix over the last couple of years has been on a steady incline. Even still, I wasn’t quite prepared for the devastating, true-life story of a young Cambodian girl named Loung Ung (Sareum Srey Moch) and her family during the early days of the Khmer Rouge’s rise to power in the aftermath of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. Adapted by Ung (from her memoir), who is now a human rights activist, and director Angelina Jolie, First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers shows us some truly unbelievable and unspeakable conditions through the eyes of this young girl from the time she’s five until nine years old.
Jolie’s record as a director has been hit and miss over the years (Unbroken, In the Land of Blood and Honey, and By the Sea), but there’s no disputing that this is her strongest work as a storyteller and visual artist. By showing us this journey through the eyes of a child who doesn’t quite understand what is happening around her, Jolie captures fragments of the world around Ung, glimpses of the way the Khmer Rouge rounded up people from all over the country—but especially big cities—and marched them hundreds of miles to re-education camps and farms where they’d grow food for troops on the front lines against the invading Vietnamese. Young Loung, we learn, still has memories or her comfortable life back home, where her father (Phoeung Kompheak) worked for the American-backed government, a fact the family must keep secret to keep him and themselves alive.
The Khmer Rouge slowly take away from the Ung family—first their car, then their money and other possessions, until finally they come for the oldest children (I believe there were six siblings altogether), who are removed from the camp to serve in the revolutionary army. After the danger of starvation, disease and countless physical abuses at the hands of their captors, Loung’s mother (the remarkable, soulful Sveng Socheata) sends her remaining three youngest out of the camp, imploring them to walk in different directions and never tell anyone their real names for fear of being executed. It’s a moment that rips your guts out as the mother sends her youngest children out into an unknown future, rather than have them stay and face more certain death.
Loung is taken in by a camp that trains child soldiers, a regimen that focuses on weapons- and fight-training as much as drilling into the heads of the impressionable youth the idea that the Vietnamese must be slaughtered for coming into their country. But when the camp is bombed relentlessly, it becomes clear that the woefully underarmed Khmer Rouge don’t stand a chance against the well-equipped Vietnamese. One particularly nerve-twisting sequence involves Loung walking precariously through a minefield, not unlike the ones where she planted explosives as part of her training.
First They Killed My Father is magnificently shot, with some of the most heart-wrenching child performances I’ve ever seen. Loung is made so numb by the terrible things she sees and experiences every day that her tears have simply dried up and she’s left with an empty stare, the embodiment of hurt and loss. The siblings are separated, reunited and separated again, but in the end, we know that Loung will make it out alive to tell her unfathomable story to the world, both in her book and in this phenomenal movie, which premieres on Netflix on Friday, Sept. 15.
The film also opens today for a limited Chicago run at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.