Angelina Jolie deserves to be commended for her striving to bring human values to the fore on screen and for her determination to use artistry for that purpose. Her latest, “First They Killed My Father,” which she directed as well as co-wrote and co-produced and which was seen at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival just before its release, is a haunting exploration of trying to survive under the oppressive reign of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.
The film stems from a memoir by Loung Ung of the terror she as a young girl and others in her family faced when Phnom Penh was invaded in 1975 and brutalized as part of the Khmer Rouge genocide against its victims. Ung, who collaborated on the screenplay with Jolie, was forced to flee. Her father had been in the military and had to run for his life, which meant that his family would also be targeted.
The story unfolds through the perspective of Loung, played as a youngster by the excellent Sreymoch Sareum. She and her siblings are forced into working the fields and being subjected to the austere, doctrinaire discipline that militates against owning anything privately and trains youths to be vicious fighters loathing the stated enemy.
The film depicts the intense brutality and the heroic efforts to escape and survive against all odds. Jolie doesn’t flinch in dramatizing the destruction and desperation. There are both emotionally touching scenes as well as horrific ones. Her location filming is excellent and she exhibits talent for raising a work to epic level, with very convincing casting to achieve maximum reality.
Jolie and her production team succeed in providing a sprawling look at the Cambodian tragedy of that era, always illuminated via the struggle of Loung Ung and her family. Fortunately, there is also an early reference to President Richard Nixon’s unjustified U.S. assault on the country.
It has been interesting and informative to follow Jolie’s career and her talent as a filmmaker. What obviously also drives her is being a deeply caring person, and that clearly stands behind virtually every scene in this film that is important historically as well as for its artistic achievement. A Netflix release. Reviewed September 15, 2017.