FIRST THEY KILLED MY FATHER takes one of history’s most horrific tragedies, the Cambodian holocaust of the late 1970s, and relates its cost via the intimate prism of a child’s eyes, as her family and their entire world are rent asunder by war and a political ideology gone mad. Though done on a large scale, as befitting the enormity of the event, it resonates in a host of details, the wounds more acute viewed through a lens of love.
1975. President Nixon’s expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia with a massive bombing campaign leaves more than craters and casualties: it helps usher into the power vacuum ultra-hard-line Communists, the Khmer Rouge. Their regimes total reorder of the society includes forcing city dwellers into the countryside to be used as slave labor. Among the affected is the family of little Luong Ung, whose 2000 memoir served as inspiration for the film. Angelina Jolie did a consummate job directing the $22,000,000 production, also co-writing the script with Ung, beautifully played by 11-year-old find Sareum Srey.
Filmed entirely on location in Cambodia, employing 3,500 extras for the crowd scenes, with all dialogue in Khmer. Cinematographer was Anthony Dod Mantle. Kompheak Phoeung plays the father, Socheta Sveng the mother. With Mun Kimhak, Run Malyna, and Khoun Sothea. Running 136 minutes, it was released theatrically and on Netflix in 2017. The year’s big war film was Dunkirk, an impressive, if overrated exercise in style. Jolie’s heartfelt look at another conflict, one with no victory beyond survival, is not as exciting, but is much more affecting.