Angelina Jolie’s First They Killed My Father opens with a 1975 news broadcast about American troops pulling out of Cambodia, a country Nixon claimed we’d never invaded. Look closely at the vintage TV and you can see the reflection of five-year-old Loung Ung (Sreymoch Sareum), a girl from Phnom Penh who’s as hazy about what’s to come as modern audiences might be today. Within the week, Pol Pot’s machine gun-toting Khmer Rouge will evacuate her entire city – 2.5 million, roughly the size of Chicago – and force the urbanites into work camps where they’ll be stripped of every possession and turned into farmers, soldiers, or corpses.
To the real-life Loung, whose memoir she and Jolie adapted into the script, her shift from pampered daughter to ditch-digger is abrupt and confusing. Communism upended their life in an instant. One day, pig-tailed Loung is dancing to rock music in her kitschy ’70s apartment. The next, her father (Kompheak Phoeung), a former government employee, is figuring out how to shelter eight people under palm fronds. We’ve seen pictures of starving refugees so many times that it’s possible to become numb. Jolie wants to jolt us awake. In her early shots, the camera lingers on Loung’s family’s polyester prints, beaded curtains and hopscotch games to make the point that before the war, life for middle-class Cambodians wasn’t so different from The Brady Bunch. Imagine Cindy and Jan sharing a single cricket for dinner. The shift seems impossible until it happens, and absurd long after it does.
During the Cambodians’ long march to the country, Jolie studies the crowded road from above, so high the faces can’t be seen. She observes the mass of ordinary people dotted with orange-robed monks, the first victims to be worked to death, and the giant gray craters where the American bombs fell. This far removed, the lives of hundreds of civilians feel as far away, and as impossible to comprehend, as modern art – a pretty picture like the pink flowers and buzzing flies she zooms in to photograph close-up. Later, she’ll shoot more aerial scenes this way over rice paddies and military training camps, but now this teeming mob will have been tamed by identical gray clothes and orderly rows. Besides the green of the fields, the only color are the red Khmer Rouge scarves looped around everyone’s neck like a noose.
Yet, most of the film takes place six inches from child star Sareum’s nose. First They Killed My Father starts by seeing her face reflected in the news. The rest of movie is about seeing the war reflected in her face, made literal when bombs glow in her eyes. No one gives her a good explanation for what’s happened to the world she knew – that the American pull-out left behind a vacuum for Pol Pot, plus enough rural resentment to get Loung’s poor cousins to support a social cull that wants to execute everyone who used to be in charge: soldiers, bureaucrats, students, Buddhists, and even white collar men like her dad. (Thanks to that title, every time Jolie shoots a slow-motion scene of men walking toward the family hut — which she does a lot, almost like a game — we suck in our breath.)
Still, to be honest, there’s not much good even in that explanation. There’s just the chaos of a country turning itself inside-out, which doesn’t make sense to anyone, especially little Loung, who has even less control of where she’s going and why. Padding barefoot past camp loudspeakers that continuously scream, “Angkar is your mother and father!”, she’s the perfect, silent witness for this implosion. She can’t argue against the nationalism that’s so fervent the Khmer Rouge would rather their Cambodian comrades die than use foreign medicine. But we see her see the old Coke bottles the hospital pretends are IVs. Even a kid knows this is wrong.
Jolie’s bond with Sareum vibrates on camera. It’s a terrific child performance, even if the script’s buffed out the rage and anger that the actual Loung was open about in her book. In reality, she recalls being moved from farming camp to combat camp because she kept getting in fights. Here, her instructors say it’s because she’s smart and strong. She’s that, too. Watching Louang roast tarantulas, pick eggplants, and plant land mines is agony. Yet, it’s also a testament to her drive to survive.
Jolie adopted her oldest son, Maddox, from Cambodia in 2002. (He’s credited as an executive producer.) To her, Loung’s story is personal. The glitch is, Jolie’s filmmaking isn’t. Of the four movies she’s directed, three of them (In the Land of Blood and Honey, Unbroken, and this) are handsome, stoic statements that war is wrong. She’s right, of course, but that’s really all her films say. They have the sense of someone trying to pass an obvious test. They’re so polished and cautious that they feel like term papers or, more uncharitably, Oscar bait.
In a way, that’s plenty — Jolie is choosing to use her megastar clout to insist audiences learn that one-quarter of the Cambodian population was slaughtered in her own lifetime. Raise your hand if you’d use your fame to do the same. And First They Killed My Father is the best work she’s done yet. Maybe it’s paradoxical to expect passion in chronicle of how regime attempted to grind passion out of its citizens. Still, every time Loung’s captors holler, “You must have a revolutionary spirit!”, I wondered if Jolie ever feels the urge to make truly rebellious art.
First They Killed My Father premieres this Friday, September 15th, on Netflix.