First They Killed My Father Movie Review

First They Killed My Father | Angelina Jolie Movie | Netflix
Photo: First They Killed My Father | Angelina Jolie Movie | Netflix

First They Killed My Father



Angelina Jolie



Sreymoch Sareum, Kompheak Phoeung & Socheata Sveng






Avg user Rating


One of the most tragic aspects of war is the incomprehensible brutality that children have to often face. Childhood is meant to be the most worry-free years of life; spent playing in the streets, watching TV, binging on sweets and most importantly, finding joy at the smallest pleasures the world has to offer. War takes that away. The youthful excitement of life is filled with incomprehensible fear. Often displaced from their homes, children have to spend life on the road seeking refuge. Hunger, sickness and death follow. Families are torn apart and the many children are orphaned. Often, under a brutal dictatorship, young kids are brain-washed and shoved into the war effort. These stories are many of which we have heard. But, rarely are we exposed to the level of barbarity the children in war zones have to deal with for much of their young lives. In First They Killed My Father, Angelina Jolie tells a story of one such child Loung Ung, who under the brutal dictatorial regime of Pol Pot, is forced into labour camps and trained as a child soldier to fight the Cambodian–Vietnamese War.

First They Killed My Father starts with a small war-documentary like introduction, where we are shown how America's indiscriminate bombing in Cambodia fuels the rise of the rebel group Khmer Rouge. The rebels are still some distance away when we are introduced to Loung and her kin. They resemble a happy urban middle-class family, cheerfully dancing to the rhythms of the local pop tunes. It is a huge family, made up of 7 children. Loung's father is a soft-spoken and kind-hearted government official who can sense the danger heading their way. When the rebels do arrive, they have to leave their home with thousands of other residents. They are forced to march several days until they reach an encampment and everyone including the children are forced to work for the inhumane ideals of Angkar, the communist regime.

This is Angelina Jolie's fourth feature as a director and she is now a complete pro at it. Much of this film is in the local language and even if you turn off the subtitles, the film is still incredibly effective at getting the emotions of the characters across. The reason for this is Jolie's collaboration with the cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (Slumdog Millionaire), who has incredible skill as a visual storyteller. It might be a cliche to say every frame is crafted to perfection, but here it totally lives up to the claim. And crafting is important, as we are embedded in the story of a five-year-old Loung trapped in a war-zone with her family. Jolie rarely strays the camera from Loung's perspective and when she does, it is to make a broader point about the devastation of the conflict. There aren't big expositions about war, politics, and philosophy. The world is built as how a five-year-old child would perceive and understand it: scared, shocked and confused at the grave new environment she is forced to navigate.

Witnessing a conflict through the lens of a child can often be hard. Sareum Srey flawlessly carries the movie as Loung. The smile that defines her shy demeanour initially, slowly wanes and the creeping fear of the situation is communicated through her eyes. We see her memories, her hopes, and her nightmares - which the director constructs like surreal imaginations. It's painful, as the hopes seem very distant and we pray that her nightmares aren't true.

Khymer Rouge's obsession with creating a utopia creates the complete opposite. Items thought of as a source of addiction to American consumerism are taken away from the families. They are left with the bare minimum, mostly clothing and footwear. All clothes are dyed to the same colour to propagate the idea of the collective and dispel any notions of individualism. There's propaganda of how the regime treats everyone equals, but, the idea of equality is only symbolic. Despite a good harvest, the bulk of the food goes to feed those at the top of the bureaucracy. Emotions and familial bonds are curtailed by the leaders, as children are trained to be killing machines in a war against the Vietnamese. Hands that should have been playing with toys are placed with guns and bombs. All this, as the benevolence of Angar blasts through the speakers. Yet, the children show signs of humanity. They find a moment to smile, to hold hands and to form bonds. The idea of a better world lives on through them.

This is the second Netflix movie about children in war, following "Beasts of No Nation". Jolie is a risk-taker and she has found the right platform to get a story like this across. An astounding actor, there's no doubt she is making her way to the top as a director. Art-house projects like these can end up being indulgent, as film-makers try to show-off the art of film-making, but, there's a bigger goal at hand here. The idea of the movie was to tell a story of a little girl caught amidst a tragedy and Jolie never wavers from that commitment as a storyteller. We as an audience get a heartbreaking account of one of the most horrifying genocides of the 20th century.

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