Passion projects can be a dangerous sand trap for even the most experienced directors; when you care too much, it tends to takes you to places the audience can’t or won’t follow.
Thankfully that’s not true of First They Killed My Father, though there aren’t many causes Angelina Jolie holds closer than Cambodia, the subject of her fourth feature and the country from which she adopted her oldest son, Maddox (who is listed here as an executive producer) and has held dual citizenship in for over a decade. Still, it probably won’t be easy to lure viewers to a film focused on the kind of brutal, relatively obscure history lesson most Americans don’t exactly flock to the cineplex (or even a late-night laptop; First They Killed My Father debuts on Netflix later this month) for — especially when it contains almost no English language, and heavily implicates the United States in its atrocities.
Father’s source material is Loung Ung’s bestselling 2000 memoir of the ruthless 1975-79 Khmer Rouge campaign that erased an estimated quarter of her small Southeast Asian nation’s population, and the movie’s slick, jittery opening — vintage newsreels set to the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil,” Richard Nixon solemnly intoning, “What we are doing is helping the Cambodians to help themselves,” in a press conference — feels a lot like borrowed Martin Scorsese or Oliver Stone. But the story quickly settles into something much more intimate and strange: a girls-eye-view of genocide that feels less like a conventional narrative than a haunted, impressionistic dream.
Five-year-old Loung (Sreymoch Sareum) plays alone on a balcony as American military helicopters roar overhead and dances in the living room to to pop records with her brother, half-eavesdroping as her father talks in low, urgent tones to a relative. The Americans are coming to bomb the capital, they’re told, and everyone should evacuate immediately — strictly for their own safety. But as retreat from the city soon turns into a mass forced march, it becomes clear that there won’t be any quick return. In the name of Angkar (not an actual person, which the movie never really specifies, but the general idea of Communism), soldiers along the road begin to demand more and more from their refugees; first, a fancy watch or a borrowed car, eventually absolute fealty, punishable by death. Personal property, Western medicine, even family ties and affection are all betrayals of the cause. Work and training camps materialize and residents are forced to surrender the last of their possessions, dye their clothes the same muddy blue, and go to work in the fields to support the unseen fighters at the front.
Jolie films it all — Loung’s glamorous mother reduced from a red-lipped beauty to a haunted, lank-haired shell; the daily beatings and indoctrination of soldiers hardly big enough to shoulder their own weapons — with the half-seen quality of a child’s-eye hyperreality, cutting to color-saturated flashbacks and back to jarringly matter-of-fact closeups of violence and chaos. In one harrowing scene, camp residents flee panicked from a Viet Cong attack into the nearby forest only to run straight into the trap of their own landmines, limbs and whole bodies evaporating in sprays of red while Loung stands frozen, treading her tiny feet inside the footprints already outlined in the dust.
It’s hard not to compare Father to Cary Fukunaga’s 2015 child-soldier drama Beasts of No Nation (also a Netflix feature), though Beasts had a much more vivid protagonist in Abraham Attah’s Agu (and an unforgettable villain in Idris Elba’s warlord). Loung, as sympathetic as she is, is too young to be much more than a conduit, and Father’s story doesn’t so much arc as walk a jagged line, inexorably. (The shadow of Jolie’s casting controversy also inevitably hangs over the largely unknown actors’ heads). Still, it’s an artful, quietly affecting piece of filmmaking, more than worth the lessons learned. B+