First They Killed My Father depicts genocide by means of a baby’s eyes 

Photograph: Netflix



Khmer and French with English subtitles


Sareum Srey Moch, Phoeung Kompheak, Sveng Socheata


Netflix and choose theaters September 15

Essentially the most outstanding factor about First They Killed My Father is how quiet it’s. Angelina Jolie’s movie—concerning the Khmer Rouge regime that killed one quarter of the inhabitants of Cambodia between the years of 1975 and 1979—is predicated on a memoir by human-rights activist Loung Ung, who was 5 years outdated when the Khmer Rouge got here to energy. Jolie runs with this premise, telling the story of a individuals by means of the eyes of a bit lady. Consequently, the movie is an impressionistic, fragmented, typically sluggish affair, one which interweaves tragic and disturbing moments with quiet and hopeful ones. And, by and huge, the inventive technique pays off.

Following an undeniably clichéd Oliver Stone-esque opening montage combining Richard Nixon, late ’60s information footage, and “Sympathy For The Satan,” we open with a quick second of innocence as Loung Ung (newcomer Sareum Srey Moch) and her siblings dance to Cambodian rock music as their dad and mom converse in hushed tones concerning the impending American invasion of Phnom Penh. And shortly sufficient, they’re interrupted by the arrival of tanks and troopers telling them that “Angkar” (Khmer for “the group,” a basic time period for the Communist Social gathering) is now in cost.

Thus begins the lengthy, in the end four-year pressured march of Loung and her household throughout the Cambodian countryside. Initially settled in a piece camp the place Pa (Phoeung Kompheak) and Ma (Sveng Socheata) warn the kids to not reveal their true identities—they by no means say why, precisely, nevertheless it’s to keep away from being focused for execution due to Pa’s place within the ousted royal authorities—the Ungs are protected, if hungry, damaged, and exhausted, for a short while. Then the Khmer Rouge’s oppression begins to ramp up, from mandating that everybody dye their garments the identical shade of black to arduous labor within the fields to drafting youngsters into army models the place they plant land mines and study to fireplace automated weapons. Emotion is forbidden; Ma is barely allowed just a few seconds of grief after being instructed considered one of her youngsters has died.

The movie is initially dispassionate as nicely, sustaining a way of distance by depicting extremely emotional moments in bits and items that spotlight Loung’s childlike perspective. (Pa’s tearful farewell to his spouse earlier than being led away by Khmer Rouge troopers is actually spied by means of a gap within the wall of their straw hut.) The strategy retains us in Loung’s headspace, together with dream sequences the place she fantasizes about consuming from a smorgasbord lit with glowing yellows and pinks and watching a once-luminous Ma placed on lipstick. However as Loung’s day-to-day life grows extra distressing, so does the imagery, which reaches an emotional, gory climax in a scene the place Loung tries to keep away from land mines she herself was pressured to bury. The soundtrack, initially hushed, builds together with the story.

Jolie’s route alternates between intimate close-ups of fingers and faces and very vast overhead photographs decreasing large crowds to human bugs, additional hammering residence the dehumanizing agenda of the Khmer Rouge. However whereas her technique produces the meant gasps when issues go from depressing to outright nightmarish, viewers with out a agency grasp of Cambodian historical past could attain the identical half-formed understanding of occasions as younger Loung. Casting controversy aside, no one can deny Jolie’s earnest intentions when it comes to the film. Her adopted son Maddox, who was born in Cambodia, is listed as an executive producer on the project, as is Loung Ung herself, and a dedication “to those who lost their lives under the Khmer Rouge—and those who survived” drives home a final message of hope. But First They Killed My Father works better as a mood piece—an accomplished, if overly long mood piece—than a history lesson.

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