“First They Killed My Father,” directed by Angelina Jolie (“By the Sea”) is one of the most heartbreaking movies of the year. Telling the autobiographical story of Loung Ung (who co-wrote the screenplay with Jolie and wrote the memoir upon which the film is based) and featuring an all-Cambodian cast, the film is an epic and disturbing recreation of one of the most horrifying events of the 20th century.
Beginning in 1975, the film chronicles the story of Loung Ung and her family as they are forced to deal with an increasingly terrible series of events due to the rise of the communist regime of the Khmer Rouge. Fearing they will be targeted due to their family’s connections to the previous government, they flee to the countryside where they end up forced to work in a series of labor camps. The family is slowly torn apart as the genocide ramps up its terror.
Films about genocide are tricky. With a personal investment in this story, Jolie fills every frame of the film with this sense of hopelessness and confusion that is as unnerving as it is compelling. The audience will find itself hard-pressed to look away as the atrocities begin to pile up and the sadness of the characters's situation begins to hit home. The music by Marco Beltrami (“The Hurt Locker”) imbues the film with a sense of terror as well as a sense of scale.
The scale of this film is stunning. Aerial shots of thousands of people walking convey the sheer number of people affected by the Cambodian genocide in a way that forces the audience to grapple with the subject matter head and realize what it would be like to be forced from your home and lose everyone and everything that ever mattered to you.
This is not a happy film. It is not a film you watch to “enjoy” in any real sense of the word. It is a film that forces its audience to look inside themselves and ask why their country didn’t do anything, why their country should’ve done something and if either they or their country are doing anything now. There are terrible atrocities in the vein of the genocides of the 20th century being committed around the world today and by and large the western world is content to deal with its own problems and do nothing. In light of that, “First They Killed My Father” is not just an extremely important film but also and extremely timely one. As extremist groups of all kinds continue to cause terror and fear all across the globe it is important now more then ever not to forget what happened in Cambodia in the ’70s. Americans did not pay any attention then. With “First They Killed My Father,” Jolie and Ung are doing their part to make sure that this time, they will.