Up until now, Angelina Jolie’s directorial efforts have shown promise, but none have been as accomplished and complete as “First They Killed My Father.” In some ways, the last thing anyone wants to hear is what a white woman thinks about Cambodian refugees or prisoners who were slaughtered under the Khmer Rouge. This aversion to appropriation also extended to Kathryn Bigelow’s “Detroit” and, to a lesser degree, Sofia Coppola’s “The Beguiled.” Women directors are allowed a certain length of rope — especially if they’re pretty — but they’re not really trusted to handle much more “important” stories that are often trusted more in the hands of male directors. So what else is new, right?
I wasn’t the biggest fan of either “By the Sea” or “Unbroken,” but I could see the promise in both. What Jolie seemed to need was a tighter method of directing, to know when to “murder your darlings” and cut unnecessary scenes even if they matter to you. But it’s easier to make the case that she knows what she’s doing with “First They Killed My Father,” which tells a powerful true story well and shows how far she’s come as a director.
Jolie said she made “First They Killed My Father” for the Cambodian people, as a way of bringing some light into their dark past. She tells the story through the eyes of Loung Ung, a humanitarian and writer whose family was ripped apart under the Khmer Rouge (Ung also co-wrote the screenplay). What I admire about Jolie’s approach is the way she takes us beyond the well-documented brutality of that period, and allows Ung to celebrate the glimpses of love that held her her family together — her father, her mother, her siblings, and her home — their appreciation for cooking, culture, music, dance, art that helped sustain them. Jolie celebrates these things deliberately as a way, perhaps, of offering up some healing. It’s worth remembering that Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt have a son, Maddox, adopted 17 years ago in the provincial town of Battambang, so her own family began in Cambodia.
I found it deeply moving to watch and to consider what might have happened to my own kid if she were put into those circumstances. Could she have endured starving, or being beaten for taking a bite of food? Could she have been trained to kill?
Jolie’s boundless compassion means that often the subjects of her film are granted too much sympathy, some say turning them into near-religious icons. But she doesn’t do that here. Loung, as played by Sreymoch Sareum, is an ordinary kid whose childhood has been robbed from her, not unlike the child soldiers in “Beasts of No Nation.”
“First They Killed My Father” illustrates how masters of war can impact lives that history seldom considers as individuals. We look at the raw numbers, how many were killed when Nixon carpet-bombed their land. Jolie shows the carved out craters those bombs left behind. Nixon and Kissinger’s bombing of Cambodia — what they did to the people there and the damage that war caused, leaving behind toxic chemicals and devastated villages — makes them war criminals. But Jolie does not dwell much on Nixon, or America, or even the Khmer Rouge. Her objective here, again, is to redraw the lines of memory and highlight the beautiful things the culture has kept intact.
This is a film told through the eyes of one girl forced to choose survival. Jolie’s keeps the camera trained on Loung’s face throughout the film. Even if seeing an experience like that through the eyes of a child can sometimes be limiting, Jolie never loses the main thrust of the film. That means that the ending does not offer any artificial redemption. There is no silver lining involved in destroying whole cultures to chase a pointless ideology — whether it be communism or anti-communism. But the film does offer hope through human connections and preservation of a shared past. “First They Killed My Father” is Jolie’s best film to date, and one that needs to be seen so that we never forget what happened there, the part our own country played in their tragedy, and how we should be more mindful of people we put in power who get to decide who is worthy of life and who isn’t.