It takes little away from “First They Killed My Father,” a remembrance of the Cambodian civil war and the Khmer Rouge genocide that followed, to say it’s too polished.
The grim narrative, a child’s-eye-view of war that could just as easily been set in Iraq, Syria, Bosnia during the ’90s or Nigeria today, and its moving finale stand on their own, powerful statements by themselves.
It’s just that movie-star turned director Angelina Jolie is a bit too enamored of vast panorama shots created with drones and keeping her mostly under-age cast clean, well-fed and front-and-center in the story.
We meet no villains, develop no appreciation of the swirling forces and circumstances that led to the reign of terror of the Khmer Rouge. We just experience the confusion and shock of those too young to be as terrified as we are for the.
So the film, now on Netflix, that summons up memories of “The Killing Fields” and the child-soldier drama “Beasts of No Nation” suffers by comparison to those films. The grit, the gruesome horrors of being trapped in a country cut off from the civilized world, enslaved and just waiting for the moment when their captors discovered the family’s father was a captain in the old Cambodian army, are doled out in small doses. It robs the story of some of its power in the process.
“First They Killed My Father” is the memoirs of Loung Ung, a family friend of Jolie’s. Loung was just six when the U.S., which had been secretly bombing Cambodia, occupying parts of it to stem to flow of North Vietnamese troops into South Vietnam, suddenly pulled out.
Her family — seven siblings and their parents (played by Phoeung Kompheak, Sveng Socheata) — had to abandon middle class comforts when the Khmer Rouge (Red “Khmer” or Cambodian people, who wore red scarves as their uniform) took over. They were instant refugees, forced to flee the city on the new regime’s orders. It was all part of a plan to strip the country of Western influences and force it back into a more primitive, plebian state.
This genocidal leadership was most memorably described as “Cambodian rednecks,” uncultured but Communist armed rural folk resentful of the educated and professional classes, hellbent on making Cambodia Great Again by murdering those they resented and making the country an agricultural collective.
Loung, played by Sareum Srey Moch, is mostly a passive witness to all this, the repeated robberies of what few possessions her brave-faced parents as they drive, then march, then ride in a relative’s ox-cart into rural exile.
And that’s just the beginning of the nightmare. More marches, re-education camps and eventually child-soldier training awaits her, as she and her family are threatened, harangued and starved in the middle of a brainwashing that demands that they “renounce all personal property,” “Angkor” (the new regime) “is your family now. We are all equal.”
But as we learned in “Animal Farm,” some pigs are more equal than others. If you dare to eat more than the bare sustenance your overseers provide, stealing the rice and vegetables you’re laboring to grow, beatings, humiliation and even death await.
Loung clings to her family, and keeps her fear in check (her dreams and nightmares are about food), except for those moments when she overhears despairing, whispered conversations between the adults. As bad as things are, eating bugs and all, they’re sure to get worse.
If you remember “The Killing Fields,” you know the arc of history that these children rely on to survive. Yes, they’re indoctrinated into the makeshift army, and yes, salvation could only come from defeat. The Vietnamese invade and the Khmer Rouge learn why one shouldn’t take a country back in time when your neighbors are armed with the latest hardware from the current century.
The adults are the real actors here, the children only required to act blank-faced with shock, and occasionally shed tears. The cast rarely has the stressed, emaciated look of genuine survivors (“The Killing Fields” managed that), partly because Jolie rarely lets the camera roll on dirty faces, even when they’re digging ditches and planting rice paddies.
There’s too much aerial footage capturing the scale of the tragedy, a sea of refugees fleeing Phnom Penh, armies of the newly-enslaved working the fields.
But Jolie deserves praise for getting this EveryWar reminder onto Netflix, highlighting the horrific human cost of land mines in war zones once the war is over. And if the first casualty of war, as a World War I era senator famously said, is truth, the second surely must be childhood.
MPAA Rating: TV-MA, violent, gore
Credits:Directed by Angelina Jolie, script by Loung Ung and Angelina Jolie, based on Ung’s memoir. A Netflix release.
Running time: 2:16