Angelina Jolie first visited Cambodia in her mid 20s to film Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. She fell in love with the country but having to dodge landmines made her realize how much about world history she hadn’t been taught in school. While there, she bout Loung Ung’s memoir for $2 on the street, and it changed her life.
She went back to Cambodia two years later in 2002 for her work with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. She spent time with local schoolchildren and realized that her son was in this very country. She adopted Maddox there that same year. The book she’d read always stuck with her, and she knew it was the story she wanted to tell in order for her son to know what his countrymen were like.
Loung Ung is a survivor of what we now call the Cambodian genocide. She was just a child during the deadly rule of the Khmer Rouge led by the dictator Pol Pot. 25% of the Cambodian population died from malnutrition, forced labour, and mass murder in the time period between 1975-1979. Almost all Cambodian artists, actors, and film makers were killed during this regime, so getting the story out has been a difficulty. Cambodia’s film community had all but expired and is only now starting to recover. With Netflix fronting $24 million for this film, First They Killed My Father is the biggest movie shot entirely in Cambodia, and director Jolie was careful to use as many Cambodian cast and crew as she could (she herself is a Cambodian citizen since 2005). Some of them are genocide survivors themselves (such as producer Rithy Panh), so therapists were on standby on the set to avoid re-traumatizing the people who’d already lived through events depicted in the film. Jolie’s son Maddox worked on the film as well.
Though the film avoids showing us the worst of the gore, the threat and undercurrent of violence is still there. It sits quite heavily as we watch a young family try to survive the unimaginable, with constant reminders that death isn’t even the worst of it. But the camera lingers on the beauty of Cambodia too – particularly the lush greenery. The cinematography is pretty stunning.
Little Ung was only five when the Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh and all of seven whens he made it out, and the film reflects her child’s eye view. Although there are plenty of emotionally powerful moments, there are also times when we struggle to adsorb all that is happening around her, like she herself must have been at that young age. The film also engages our inner protectors: watching this little girl plant land mines and fire guns is just too much to process.
For the most part, the film’s most tragic scenes are deliberately underplayed, almost but not quite detached, because we come to understand that this story is being told in retrospect. There is a greater context but mostly the film is not so much interested in the historical facts as it is in giving the genuine experience of what it felt like to live (or die) through it. There’s no triumphant spin, no big, redeeming moment. It was a bleak time and it is painstakingly recreated through the camera’s lens. Jolie avoids any typical Hollywood ending and keeps our focus right where it belongs: on a little girl who surived.