The movie “First They Killed My Father” has been nominated in the Golden Globes’ Best Foreign Language Film category this year. This is exciting news! This will help the world to learn more and/or continue to remember the genocide Cambodians went through in the 1970s.
As a survivor of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime, I still remember how cruelly my team leaders forced us to work on the field, tortured us when we missed the target, or even when we became weak due to exhaustion. Looking back I am quite emotional for my own survival and for the lose of close relatives and millions of innocent Cambodians under that regime.
Just a little background, in their quest to establish a socialist state in Cambodia based on agriculture, the Khmer Rouge turned the country into a ‘killing field’ resulting in the deaths of more than 1.5 million citizens from disease, starvation, over-work and execution.
For the three years, eight months and twenty days of the Khmer Rouge regime, Cambodia was virtually closed to the outside world. It was ruled through the barrel of a gun and, as historians have recorded, was subject to one of the most radical and terrifying programs of orchestrated social change in the modern age. The country’s social infrastructure was completely destroyed. This is the period on which “First They Killed My Father” is based.
When this film was available on Netflix, my family sat down to watch it together. I was brought back to those days when I was separated from my parents and had to endure all that hardship and cruelty in a children’s camp. My wife, Sotheary, born after the collapse of the regime tried to imagine how painful the whole three years were. My 9 year son, Ethan, was angry and asked a lot of why questions. David, my grade 11 son, later wrote a review of the film. This came at the right time when high school curriculum in British Columbia in Canada first introduced a subject called “Genocide” where grades 11 and 12 learn all those genocidal acts around the world including Cambodia. The following is his writing in entirety.
First They Killed My Father manages to accurately portray the brutality and profound effect of the Khmer Rouge through its clever use of actors, language, and geographical shooting location. The entire cast of the movie is composed of Khmer actors, including the Ung family, the main characters of the film. The story is filtered through Loung Ung, a young girl growing up in 1970s Cambodia, and revolves around the reality of the genocide; throughout the movie, we see events that are accurate to the genocide in question and reflect its severity. The design and directing choices, such as language and shooting location were carefully planned by director Angelina Jolie to better communicate the message of Khmer authenticity.
The movie, which is completely told in the Khmer language (and snippets of French, the once Imperial language of Cambodia) captures the horrors of the genocide fairly well. The build-up is accurate, with the Khmer Rouge soldiers marching into Phnom Penh, being hailed as heroes, as the Khmers were tired of American rule in the wake of the Vietnam war. The entirety of the city is then marched towards the rural country side, with government officials being rounded up and killed at this stage. Families are seen wading through the hot sun on cracked streets, while child soldiers armed with guns watch. The corruption and violence inherent in the system is shown at this stage in the film; in one particular instance, a communist Rouge soldier takes an expensive watch from Pa Ung, claiming that Angkar needed it (Angkar being a Khmer name for the Rouge.)
The truth of the genocide is shown in detail as well; survivors dressed in black, drank and ate very little, were violently beat, and had to construct their own shelters. The film attempts to stay as real as possible, with little to no dramatization.
Death, being a recurring theme in genocides, is prevalent here as well. The notorious Killing Fields are touched on as well, with scenes of men, women, children, and monks being lined up and shot. As in reality, the film does not discriminate between the groups, just as the real soldiers once did not. Death is a subtlety in this film however, a dangerous idea, a more hidden danger. When people die in the film, they are rarely shot, blood spraying from their brains, but rather in a more nuanced way, whether it be by premonition, a vision, or a quick cut at the moment they are about to be executed. It’s possible to process this as a protection of the viewer; as a gentler way of masking the brutality of the genocide.
The aftermath of the genocide is also shown, with the Khmer people turning on the Rouge after the Vietnamese enter the country. This is accurate to life and represents what happened after the Rouge lost some of its influence in the country.
It is important to note the role of the director of the movie, Angelina Jolie. She has a several ties to Cambodia, with an adopted child from the country, and she has starred in several occasions in the country, including scenes from Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. In her time in the country, she actively campaigned to support the war torn citizens of the country, and has received a citizenship from King Norodom as compensation. The film itself is based on the memoirs of Loung Ung, and she worked on the screenplay with Jolie as an attempt to solidify its accuracy. While it is impossible to say for sure, the fact that the writer of the memoir upon which the film is based upon worked on the set of the film may provide implications for the film’s overall accuracy.
This article is for the millions of Cambodian victims of the Khmer Rogue! For us survivors we should never forget this barbarous event in our country’s history and should do whatever possible to prevent another occurrance in Cambodia or elsewhere around the world. It is also for a peaceful and brighter Cambodia and the world!