The subtitle of Angelina Jolie’s First They Killed My Father distills the essence of this eloquent film: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers. Closely following the memoir by Loung Ung, Jolie has directed a piercing film about a child’s experience of the Cambodian genocide in the 1970s.

Her last film was unwatchable with a straight face

Seen from the point of view of Loung, who was five years old when her life crumbled around her and much of her family disappeared, the film is vividly real and shaped with a sure artistic hand. Now and then, hallucinatory and imagined scenes glide in, adding a poetic aura and enhancing the pervasive sense that Loung is trapped in a living nightmare.

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Jolie has had a high-profile, uneven record as a director. Her last film, Beyond the Sea, was an indulgent homage to 1960s cinema, unwatchable with a straight face. Unbroken, about the survivor of a Japanese internment camp during World War Two, was competent and pedestrian.    

But the new film takes her back to what she does best, and what she did in her underrated first film, In the Land of Blood and Honey, set during the Bosnian war. These films are not about politics, but about the impact of politics on individuals, as characters’ inner lives are moulded by the wars outside their doors.

The film begins with a brief, functional introduction. Television news clips show President Richard Nixon during the Vietnam War, announcing the American invasion of, and later withdrawal from, neighbouring Cambodia.

But almost immediately the story shifts to Loung, whose sense of politics is simply the fuzzy explanations a child hears. The second youngest in a large family, she is a happy, middle-class girl in Phnom Penh, in a white dress with white ribbons in her pigtails.

Her adored father is a member of the military police in the US-backed government, a role which puts the family in danger when the Communist Khmer Rouge take over.

Jolie creates vast overhead shots of the forced evacuation of Phnom Penh, as the city population is marched at gunpoint toward rural villages. Roads are crammed with people on foot, carrying whatever possessions they can salvage.

Yet most of the film focuses on Loung and her parents’ expressive faces, as their once-comfortable lives become a daily struggle to survive. The family is forced to live in a hut and to dye their clothes black to avoid individualism and what the Khmer Rouge call “Western vanity”. The new government’s ideology is a smokescreen for brutality and executions. Loung and other children work in the fields, yet are forbidden to eat what they grow. Her teenage siblings are sent to labour camps.

Capturing suffering

The most incisive and devastating scenes are the most personal. Constantly hungry, Loung wakes from dreaming about a banquet of food, and in the night steals a handful of rice from the family’s meagre supply. The next morning, her brother is suspicious, she is guilt-ridden, and her father quietly forgiving.

There are stretches of silence that emphasise Loung’s isolation

Jolie elicits tender performances from the entire cast. We empathise with the sadness and confusion evident in Loung’s eyes  (she is played by Sreymoch Sareum, a non-professional), and also see how devastating it is for her parents to watch helplessly as their children suffer.

The screenplay, by Jolie and Loung, is deft at providing the information viewers need. When soldiers take away Loung’s father, she spies as her parents embrace, and overhears her father say, “Be brave for the children.”

Loung can only imagine his fate, and we see her version on screen: her father is killed by soldiers and his body tumbles into a pit, in a scene tinted a hellish, otherworldly blue. The unreal color makes the events more haunting, while highlighting Loung’s uncertainty about precisely what happened.

The drama intensifies when Loung is placed in a camp and trained as a soldier at the age of eight. Jolie has an eye for the defining details, like the gun Loung is trained to use, almost as big as she is. Eventually Loung finds herself alone in a wooded area loaded with mines, exactly the kind she has been taught to assemble.

It probably did take a star of Jolie’s magnitude to get this film made

Throughout, the film never comes close to didacticism, until text at the end reveals that the genocide killed a quarter of Cambodia’s population.

Jolie’s choices are astute. There are stretches of silence that emphasise Loung’s isolation, with no one to talk to, no sympathetic ear. The relative lack of dialogue also makes things easier on international audiences reading subtitles; the actors speak Khmer.

And the director has surrounded herself with first-rate collaborators, including the cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (Slumdog Millionaire), whose use of colour is bright enough to reflect a child’s experience without prettifying reality. Jolie produced along with Rithy Panh, director of The Missing Picture, a trenchant take on the genocide depicted partly with clay puppets.

While Jolie has a strong voice and vision, it’s not as if no one else could possibly have made this film. But it probably took a star of her magnitude to get a project about such a tough subject made. First They Killed My Father might have been a vanity production or an earnest, clumsy humanitarian plea, yet it is neither. Jolie has put her stardom to stunning artistic use.

★★★★☆ 

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