First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers from director Angelina Jolie is a child’s experience of the genocide in Cambodia during the reign of the Khmer Rouge.
First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers is based on a book of the same name by Loung Ung. Loung Ung and Angelina Jolie wrote the screenplay.
Five year old Loung is played by Sareum Srey Moch. The story begins in 1975. It is told from the perspective of a child. Loung doesn’t understand what’s going on around her, so neither do we. It isn’t a history lesson, it’s a story of survival and family.
The film began with some news clips of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger. This was used to ground the adults watching the film to an era, to lead us in. The rest of the story was told through the confused and frightened eyes of a child. Larger events in Viet Nam, Cambodia, or the world didn’t reach her awareness.
Loung is at home in Phnom Penh when troops roll down the streets. Her father (Phoeung Kompheak) and mother (Sveng Socheata) rush the children out of their home and into the stream of people leaving the city. They go to a work camp where they are forced to raise food they aren’t allowed to eat. Loung digs rice fields, plants rice, and scrapes leeches off her legs as she works. Their father is taken away and killed.
After watching her children starve, Loung’s mother sends them all off in different directions. Loung and her sister walk through the jungle and find another camp. This one gives them more food. They are trained to be soldiers. Tiny Loung is taught to plant grenades in the earth, create booby traps, and shoot a gun. The children listen to invectives about loyalty to the Khmer Rouge and how the Vietnamese are the enemy.
In one particularly horrific scene, the children are forced to stand in waist deep water holding rifles above their shoulders. They stay there, unmoving, for hours. Rain pours down on them, large snakes swim among them, still they stand.
When bombs fall or soldiers rush in shooting, Loung’s only thought is to survive. She doesn’t know which side the men are on or why they shoot at each other. All these questions that adult viewers have about who the soldiers are or what army they represent don’t concern Loung. She simply wants a safe place, away from the evil.
Loung is smart. She learns how to cook beetles and tarantulas, how to skin and gut a snake. People run through the jungle in fright and are blown up by land mines. Loung knows to walk slowly, watch her feet, find a safe path. Even though she was younger, her siblings followed her lead when bullets were flying and they needed a way out of danger.
Eventually Loung and her sister are reunited with some of her brothers. At the end, they are in a Red Cross camp where more of her brothers are found. Only 5 members of her family survived the Khmer Rouge: 3 brothers and 1 sister and Loung. The final scene shows the real grown up Ung siblings being blessed by Buddhist monks.
Loung is a quiet child. She doesn’t whine, cry, or ask a lot of questions. She listens. She eavesdrops on adult conversations, she watches. She loves her family, especially her father. They are her only comfort. Falling asleep holding her sister’s hand is often the best part of her day.
Because Loung is quiet, the film is quiet. I’ve seen comments that it’s boring or slow. It was never boring or slow, it’s too fraught with danger and horror to be boring.
Jolie’s choice as the director to move the point of view down to Loung’s level makes this war movie unique. It isn’t about ideology. It’s about family and food and staying alive. It’s about being powerless in a frightening world that makes no sense. Sometimes the camera sees what Loung sees. Sometimes the camera watches her as she stands in line for food or picks vegetables she won’t get to eat, or scampers away from danger. Sometimes the camera rises above to show the prisoners working like ants in the fields or marching in lines.
There are a few color saturated memories of Loung’s former life in the city where she had abundant food, played with her siblings, or attended cultural events. Her memories are bright and beautiful, especially compared with the dusty thatched shelters and empty food plates in her new life.
The child playing Loung, Sareum Srey Moch, did an excellent job. There was a lot of responsibility on her young shoulders. She was the center of every scene. She conveyed subtle emotions such as fear, disgust or longing without giving herself away to the guards. Her intelligence shone through. Much credit goes to Angelina Jolie for eliciting such compelling performances from all her actors.
I have a picture book Alice Walker wrote called Why War is Never a Good Idea. Here’s part of what she said,
War tastes terrible
Bad. . . .
Sip by sip. . . .
Now, suppose You
To some of
& one day
In this place.
A whole country, an entire people, went through what Loung went through: a trauma to a nation that will take generations to overcome. They will drink the water in this place, sip by sip, for a very long time. True stories like this one from Loung Ung help with the healing and remind us that war is never a good idea.
First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers is in Khmer with English subtitles. It is available on Netflix.