Telluride Film Review: ‘First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers’

'First They Killed My Father: A
Courtesy of Toronto Film Festival

Angelina Jolie teams with Rithy Panh to honor Cambodia with an earnest, impressively cinematic saga that really ought to be more compelling.

For a brief moment at the beginning of “First They Killed My Father,” we glimpse a white reporter taking snapshots of the Khmer Rouge as they roll into Phnom Penh in April 1975, but for the rest of the movie, not a single Caucasian appears on screen in this appropriately Cambodian story. That alone represents a significant innovation in Angelina Jolie’s sprawling made-for-Netflix (but, if we’re really being honest, made-for-the-big-screen) adaptation of Loung Ung’s survivor’s memoir, considering that Western films like “The Killing Fields” have almost always privileged the white man’s POV on this and other atrocities.

Still, like last year’s “Beasts of No Nation” (the film this most closely resembles), a lack of stars and surfeit of suffering will inevitably limit the reach of this essential story, though the involvement of Oscar-nominated expat Rithy Panh (“The Missing Picture”) lends it a heft that could make this difficult Cambodian production a factor come awards season.

There’s a simple, practical reason that other movies take the outsider-looking-in approach, and it’s not one that’s so easily reduced to charges of America’s white-savior complex as some critics seem to think: For those who don’t already know the radically different foreign culture in which such exotic stories are set, it’s enormously helpful to experience them through the eyes of someone who is also trying to make sense of such potentially confusing circumstances.

In that respect, Jolie’s film offers a valid alternative solution, by assuming the POV of five-year-old Loung, whose childlike inability to process the events unfolding around her theoretically mirrors our own, providing a natural point of identification for this overwhelming and often-ghastly depiction of the Khmer Rouge’s torture and murder of their fellow Cambodians in the wake of brutal civil war. No mention is made of the civil war here, whereas Jolie directly implicates the United States’ secret bombing of Cambodia (which borders Vietnam to the west) under Nixon.

What’s clear from the archival montage Jolie includes at the outset is that Nixon effectively managed to disinterest Americans in a country that suffered enormously during the Vietnam War, and to a large extent, that interest has never returned — which, of course, is what Jolie hopes to correct by reenacting this painful chapter in the history of the country where her adopted son Maddox (an executive producer on the film) was born, leveraging her personal reputation and devoting her own already-impressive directorial skills to that end.

The trouble is, Jolie clearly has a far bigger heart than most — witness her brood of children and quiver of causes — and she already cares about the Cambodian genocide, whereas the average viewer needs a bit more hand-holding to be drawn in to such a difficult story. After all, there’s no worse feeling than realizing that one is bored midway through such a weighty tour of miserablism, though the risk is real when we lack for context.

Dramatically speaking, apart from the fact that no child should experience what Loung had to witness, she’s not an especially compelling character — although Jolie’s interest in her is almost parental, and unconditional, creating a dynamic of presupposed empathy different from the vast majority of male-directed movies. Perhaps there was more dialogue to guide audiences at some point, although there’s not enough left to extrapolate a personality for Loung or her siblings. Foreign-language films (this one is performed mostly in Khmer) with kid protagonists frequently benefit from the fact that audiences can’t judge the line readings, relying instead on the facial expressions of adorable urchins — but even these don’t communicate quite enough in this case.

The film is so understated with regard to Loung’s basic predicament that we don’t recognize her driving desire — simply, to be reunited with her siblings — until the movie is over. Otherwise, Loung’s chief concern is to survive, and apart from the fact that she lived to write a book about it, the odds don’t look good after the Khmer Rouge round up her family and begin to execute those with ties to the old government.

Misleading title aside, there’s quite a bit the Khmer Communist Party does to make the Ungs’ lives miserable before Loung’s father is finally dragged off and shot (his execution is depicted entirely in Loung’s imagination, and haunts her repeatedly throughout the rest of the film). Together with her two brothers, two sisters and parents, Loung rides out of Phnom Penh in the family pickup truck. This exodus, made under false pretenses (the threat of an American bombing that never comes), is stunning to witnesses, as the civilians walk in one direction carrying umbrellas while soldiers march in the other carrying rifles and rocket launchers.

In yet another example of 20th-century communism gone horribly wrong, Cambodia’s new rulers attempted to confiscate private property and collectivize the country, forcing the Ung family — including the kids — to work the fields where food is cultivated for the soldiers, surviving on thin gruel and whatever insects they can capture and eat. Under camp rules, should a starving child so much as a steal a green bean for herself, she might be ruthlessly punished. It’s a scary thought that Loung’s quality of life actually improves somewhat when she escapes and finds herself reassigned to another camp, where she is trained as a child soldier, which in turn leads to the film’s most horrifying scene, in which Loung finds herself standing in the middle of a minefield as her less fortunate peers vaporize around her.

Engagement and identification challenges aside, Ung’s story should resonate beyond its mere historical value, as many of the circumstances Jolie depicts seem to repeating now in other corners of the world — most notably Syria, where the Islamic State group is terrorizing residents in a similar fashion. Perhaps the trickiest contradiction to parse is the sheer splendor of the Cambodian landscape, breathtakingly captured by DP Anthony Dod Mantle (who mostly checks the Terrence Malick-like distractions of local flora and fauna). These glimpses recall such imprisoned-child sagas as “Empire of the Sun” and “Fateless,” whose first-person accounts attempt to reconcile the fact that even in such grim circumstances, the young protagonists managed to experience moments of joy and beauty. Audiences should be grateful for these fleeting reprieves, as Jolie’s oh-so-earnest treatment of Ung’s story might otherwise be too heavy to bear.

Telluride Film Review: 'First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers'

Reviewed at Telluride Film Festival, Sept. 2, 2017. (Also in Toronto Film Festival — Special Presentations.) Running time: 136 MIN.


(Cambodia) A Netflix release of a Netflix Original Film, jolie pas, Bophana production. Producers: Rithy Panh, Angelina Jolie, Ted Sarandos, Michael Vieira. Executive producers: Loung Ung, Maddox Jolie-Pitt, Adam Somner, Pauline Fischer, Sarah Bowen, Charles Schlissel.


Director: Angelina Jolie. Screenplay: Loung Ung, Jolie, based on the book by Loung Ung. Camera (color): Anthony Dod Mantle. Editor: Xavier Box. Music: Marco Beltrami.


Kompheak Phoeung, Soceata Sveng, Dara Heng, Chenda Run, Kimhak Mun, Sreyneang Oun, Sothea Khoun, Nika Sarun, Nita Sarun, Sreymoch Sareum. (English, Khmer dialogue)

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  1. Stan says:

    My advice for anyone who has any interest in this film or subject is: Read the book.
    There are passages in it that will make grown men cry.

  2. Stan says:

    It would have made a lot more sense to have it narrated.
    Unless you have read the book I can’t see how it does justice to the story without much more explanation of the events.

    And as is usual in liberal movies the only blame is assigned is to the Americans.
    There should have been a message that communism aint cool…

    Full marks to Jolie for caring enough to make a movie out of one of the best books I have ever read, but it could have been and should have been so much more. I found it in a bookstore on my first visit to Cambodia.

  3. Nathan says:

    “…the involvement of Oscar-nominated expat Rithy Panh”

    Rithy Panh is not an “expat”.

    He studied in France, but lives today in Cambodia and France.
    His production company Bophana Films is based in Cambodia.
    He founded the ‘Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center’ in Phnom Penh, which “aims at restoring, and enhancing the Cambodian audiovisual memory”, especially the Cambodian genocide.

  4. Heather says:

    Syrian residents are not being terrorised by the Taliban. Don’t you and your copy editor read basic foreign news? ISIS, however, has taken swathes of Syrian territory and continues to terrorise many civilians.
    I have seen the movie. i didn’t need the context, or the outsider’s view trying to make sense of it all. I find your review lazy and insular. I’m glad Jolie has produced such an uncompromising movie. That took courage. It also took courage to watch it.

  5. Miranda says:

    It’s nice that the critic recognizes that a female director has a different approach to child characters, but what a blind spot to describe it as “paternal” and then proceed to criticize her for not making Loung’s desires clearer.

    I think he’s right and that Jolie has a much more empathetic vision for Loung, but he’s missing that female viewers may COMPLETELY understand Jolie’s interpretation of Loung. Women are still the main caregivers in our society and this sort of inscrutable child is not uncommon. The way Loung is shown under stress is not strange. It is not at all surprising that she doesn’t explicitly state she wants to reunite her family.

    It’s good that the critic understands a female director may communicate differently from the norm, but it’s important for him to realize that just because her message doesn’t resonate with HIM doesn’t mean much. An empathetic, maternalistic view may resonate deeply with audience members who have spent years understanding and shepherding children.

  6. David says:

    I’m so tired of privileged Hollywood superstars making films about cataclysmic historical events in faraway lands. What’s the point? More people in the western worlds will learn about it? And that will…? A small art-house audience will ooh and ahhh about the aesthetics and “politics” and many will soon move on to the next episode of Game of Thrones or the next art-house darling. Not to mention the accolades for “directing,” whereas a team of professionals – akin to ghost-writers writing celebrity book staples – actually pulled off all the technical aspects of the production. Jolie et al. can do some good by raising money for causes, but please spare us the “artistic” interpretations of conflicts and people you occasionally visit and think you understand.

  7. Chris says:

    Ms. Jolie has an overestimated self-esteem about herself, I agree with the critic’s opinion. It smells of cheap populism. And the way she acted with the children during the casting, this is already a big minus to the film. Too many conversations, I read the book Lung and I think Jolie just broke it. Unethical approach to what is happening, absolute vanity.

    • Miranda says:

      The improv method for casting non-acting children is common. It’s playing make-believe with kids. They know what’s going on and this entire thing has been blown WAY out of proportion. It’s just encouraging the kids to pretend – which kids do on their own all the time.

  8. Winston S. says:

    Respectfully sir, “The Killing Fields” did not “privilege the white man’s POV” in any way. The first half of the film was told from a journalistic standpoint, which shared the viewpoint not just of Schanberg, but also of Dith Pran (a native Cambodian) as they were both reporting the atrocities being committed. The second half of the film was shown almost entirely from Pran’s point of view. Scenes were filmed in the native dialect and everything we saw was from Pran’s heartbreaking perspective. Any scenes showing Schanberg thereafter (which were limited to approximately two to three) were there to keep the audience updated as to efforts being made stateside to discover Pran’s whereabouts. Even during those scenes, we are introduced to Pran’s grief-stricken family members, speaking in their own dialect, thus being shown from their cultural POV. So for all practical purposes, the film belonged to Pran, the native Cambodian, and director Roland Joffe did an effortlessly masterful job telling us the story from his POV. When I think of “The Killing Fields,” I do not think of the “white man’s POV.” I would apply that concept to a film like the “Deer Hunter,” where one white man travels to a war-torn Asian nation to find his white friend, and in the process, the audience is treated to the “white man’s POV” of a one sided destitute Asia. That does not detract from the greatness of “The Deer Hunter” as a film, as that was the story-telling intention of Cimino and his crew, but if you are summarily affirming “The Killing Fields” as a Western film made from the “white man’s POV,” I find that to be an erroneous assessment. “The Killing Fields” stands out as one of the most harrowing and authentic depictions of genocide ever captured in the history of cinema.

    • citney says:

      The Killing Fields was a couple generations ago, people cannot expect many user 30 to even know about this film.

      Critics knee jerk when Angie’s name appears in or even NEAR a film. The reviews are written months ahead of time, ( not all, but some have admitted they write the reviews without seeing the film). Many critics also assume that a beautiful woman cannot be a Director, she has to choose one or the other, but both is asking to much of the world.

      I have seen a few of the films Mr. Debruge has given the highest of scores. I always wondered if that particular critic had even finished high school or was maybe some nerd from 10th grade who had nothing better to do. I’m sticking with my first instinct, Mr. Debruge is indeed in HS, probably detention for not paying attention in class.

  9. IT--II--IT says:

    ” ALL directors in America and England are SPOOKS.
    ————————————– – – Same goes worldwide. ”
    Miles MATHIS

    JOLIE is ‘X–posed’.

    So’s all of our decades stale, 100% INTEL RUN – – Hollywood franchise slum.

  10. millerfilm says:

    I’m surprised that there hasn’t been “outrage” that a white is telling this Asian story. Guessing that Asians aren’t considered as important as African-Americans in Hollywood. Thus, no gnashing of teeth.

    • Kevin Woolmer says:

      I suggest you do a little research on Jolie and her positioning in the Cambodian movie industry and film boards before saying what you have!

      • Adam says:

        This movie wouldn’t exist without Jolie.
        The Cambodian film industry has not the budgets for something like this.

        There is no real commercial market for ‘dramas about genocide’, because it’s considered too risky, I guess. Especially if you shoot the film in Khmer and with local talent in the leads and no Americans.

        That’s VERY hard to produce, so you should give Ms. Jolie some credit for that.

        And it’s actually a very good film.
        It’s like “Slumdog Millionaire” meets “The Killing Fields”, but in a good way.

    • Mark says:

      Why? How silly. A “white” person can have emotions, talents, and points of view. I’m not white–I’m Asian. But I have no problem with this.

  11. Bert Katz says:

    From the article:
    “… many of the circumstances Jolie depicts seem to repeating now in other corners of the world — most notably Syria, where the Taliban is terrorizing residents in a similar fashion.”

    That should be Afghanistan, NOT Syria, assuming that your reference to the Taliban is accurate.

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