Thursday, September 21, 2017

Jon Fasman | October/November 2017

They must have made quite a pair: the statuesque film star from Los Angeles, and the small, slight returnee, cycling together through rural Cambodia. Angelina Jolie was in the country shooting “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider”, her first starring role in a blockbuster, though she had won an Oscar the year before for her supporting role in “Girl, Interrupted”. Loung Ung was travelling in Cambodia 20 years after she had escaped with her family; her memoir of surviving the Khmer Rouge, “First They Killed My Father”, had just been published.

They came together, says Loung Ung, because Jolie bought a pirated copy of her book on the street and wanted to meet her. An unlikely friendship formed. “We stopped somewhere,” says Loung Ung. “Not a restaurant – just a Cambodian house. We were offered some food, some chicken with ginger. We saw a scrawny chicken run by, and then we heard this crack, and that was dinner. The owner of the house saved the best parts for Angie – the gizzards and intestines. And she ate them. She knew how to be respectful.” When Jolie expressed an interest in turning her memoir into a film, Loung Ung did not hesitate, though she says she would not have readily trusted it to any other non-Cambodian. But Jolie, she says, “is Cambodian in her spirit, in her connection to the country and in her family”.

“First They Killed My Father” is the opposite of Jolie’s usual blockbusters. It is modestly budgeted, with few special effects, despite being the biggest film ever shot in Cambodia. Instead of big Hollywood names, it stars Khmer-speaking non-professional actors. Instead of escapist popcorn fun, Jolie presents viewers with atrocities that took place decades ago in a country that most Western viewers would struggle to find on a map.

Yet from this grim subject-matter Jolie has made a quietly revelatory film that shows war and genocide through a child’s eyes without a single false or cloying note. Most of the film is doggedly realistic but Jolie makes outstanding use of dream sequences and bursts of surrealism: when the Khmer Rouge complete their first march through Phnom Penh, the camera suddenly turns upside down, as a Khmer dancer in a lion-head mask moves sinuously among the soldiers. These occasional breaks with reality highlight how bizarre the events must have seemed to someone too young to understand – too young, at first, to be as frightened as the adults. Suddenly Loung Ung has to flee her home and abandon her possessions. Her parents have to work in the fields; the family eats insects to survive.

In the wood-panelled library of her elegant, sprawling Los Angeles estate, Jolie admits it’s a hard sell. On screen her defining trait is her chilly poise; in person she has an ethereal, swan-like grace and a lively mind. Her home feels warm and inhabited, though she admits she’s still in the process of moving in (“You may have heard there’s been a sudden split,” she says, her only reference to her recent, much-publicised separation from Brad Pitt), and echoing through the house are the quick footsteps of some of her six children. “This isn’t the kind of movie people rush out to see,” she says. “I tried to make it a film not just for people who are interested in history: I tried to make it visually interesting. I want to help people sit through something that’s hard for them to sit through.”

In that she succeeded, for two main reasons. First, she elicited extraordinary performances from her actors, particularly Srey Moch Sareum, the nine-year-old lead, whom Jolie and her casting team found in a charity school in Phnom Penh; and Komphaek Phoeung, an interpreter, author and occasional actor who plays the family’s father. In his face viewers can see bewilderment, fear and his heroic efforts to maintain a brave face for his children.

Srey Moch Sareum, says Jolie, “figured out what some actors never figure out. Her job was to think of things. Her job was to watch things...I told her I never need to see tears. I don’t want you to laugh if you don’t feel like laughing. She did it all naturally.” The average viewer may know little about Cambodia or the Khmer Rouge, but by keeping the focus on Loung Ung and her family, she makes the film their story: the viewer is invested in their fate.

Second, the world in which these actors move is fully realised, thanks to meticulously designed sets, interiors and costumes. For this Jolie credits the hundreds of Cambodians who made up the cast and crew. Many of them remembered the war, she says, and “they tell you exactly what it was like...Everything [in the film] is based on someone’s experience. They talked us through everything.”

But at the centre of the film is Loung Ung’s experience. She was five years old when the Khmer Rouge took over and ten when she escaped to Thailand with her brother and sister-in-law. The regime killed both of her parents, two sisters and 20 other relatives. Eventually she resettled in Vermont, and today runs a restaurant and brewery in Cleveland, Ohio, with her husband. Jolie says she was taken by the way that Loung Ung’s memoir “invites you into the experience of being a family in a time of war. She writes beautifully and honestly, and never tries to be more intellectual than her readers.” The two jointly adapted it for the screen.

Jolie’s involvement with Cambodia stretches back almost two decades. She was granted citizenship in 2005. Raised in Los Angeles, coming off a wild youth and heading into the peak of her career, she learned in Cambodia the tribulations of refugees and the dire poverty of the developing world. When she talks about Cambodia, her cool persona turns to genuine warmth. Cambodia, she says, “connected me” to the world: “I had my awakening there.”

She adopted her eldest son, Maddox, from a Cambodian orphanage 15 years ago. He is listed as an executive producer of “First They Killed My Father”, and gave his name to her Cambodian charity, the Maddox Jolie-Pitt Foundation, housed on her property in the country’s remote north-west. The foundation focuses on education, health care and the conservation of forests and wildlife.

She has of course come in for a fair amount of criticism for her work in Cambodia – a film star using a poor country as a prop to make herself look generous and involved – but almost none of it comes from Cambodians themselves. In conversation she is realistic and humble about what an outsider like her is able to accomplish. She financed her foundation, but Cambodians run it: she has a career elsewhere, after all.

Like experienced NGO-types, she understands how difficult it is to solve problems discretely: success in de-mining a forest, for instance, produces an increase in poaching and deforestation. Conservation activists must also persuade people to act against their own immediate interests. “We see people come in with immediate cash, which solves a short-term need but is harmful longer-term. What we need to do is make a case for the steady long-term view.”

One of her co-producers, Rithy Panh, perhaps Cambodia’s best-known film-maker, says, “I’m used to producing when people just show up, shoot and go home. Angelina is not like that. She has a strong, intimate relationship with Cambodia...It gave her a bright view of what people can become.”

That may seem odd for a country best known for having survived a genocide, but Cambodia is resilient: travellers will find few more forward-looking, pragmatic, optimistic countries. Four decades after the Khmer Rouge’s fall, it is less hesitant to confront its past than it once was. And yet, the subject still makes the government jumpy. When Jolie was trying to get permission to make the film, she told government officials that “this isn’t a film about politics. We don’t want to bring up the horrors of the past. We want to help move the country forward: it’s just a story about a Cambodian family.”

Rithy Panh says they plan to take the film to every province (few Cambodians live in villages with movie theatres, and even fewer subscribe to Netflix, which produced the film). Most Cambodians were born after the Khmer Rouge’s fall; Rithy Panh says that the film will help them understand a past which people are still reluctant to discuss. “People will watch and they can talk. They can say to their children, ‘That’s how we lived’…[Jolie] directed the film, but it’s a Cambodian story.”

Jon Fasman is The Economist’s Washington correspondent. He was previously based in South-East Asia


  1. Newt ��‏ @babynewt_ 1h1 hour ago
    I have just watched #FirstTheyKilledMyFather on Netflix & cried all the way through! Hats off to the lush Angelina Jolie,amazing directing

    PalomitascnDiamantes‏ @PconDblog 2h2 hours ago
    An impeccable address by Angelina Jolie # FirstTheyKilledMyFather����

    PalomitascnDiamantes‏ @PconDblog 2h2 hours ago2 hours ago 2h2 hours ago
    Thanks to Angelina Jolie for telling stories that matter # FirstTheyKilledMyFather

    megan‏ @vinkaflaminka 3h3 hours ago
    So I only just watched #FirstTheyKilledMyFather last night and let me just say that it's SO. GOOD. AND. FUCKING. EMOTIONAL. You gotta see it

    Asian Correspondent‏ @AsCorrespondent 3h3 hours ago
    'Based on a true story' is not the only way Angelina Jolie secures authenticity of #FirstTheyKilledMyFather

    Jen Weaver (Workman)‏ @CodaJen 5h5 hours ago
    Watched "First They Killed My Father " on Netflix. It was powerful. Human kind can be evil and beautiful. #FirstTheyKilledMyFather

    Thisbe‏ @5or6years 9h9 hours ago
    Finally watched #FirstTheyKilledMyFather via @netflix. People around the world whose democracy is threatened should watch this film.

    Victoria Heric‏ @VictoriaHeric 10h10 hours ago
    You're such a good mom, #AngelinaJolie beautiful tribute to ur kids beginnings #FirstTheyKilledMyFather

    Nancy Rose @ NancyyRosee 6 hours
    #FirstTheyKilledMyFather is so emotional. A tragic story turned into a powerful yet beautiful film ���� So proud of my hero: #AngelinaJolie

    Irum Azeem Farooque‏Verified account @Irumf 12h12 hours ago
    What a wonderful tru story @Netflix I jst saw #FirstTheyKilledMyFather Directed by #AngelinaJolie on #Cambodia during th days of #KhmerRouge

    Sarah Targaryen‏ @SarahPrimate 12h12 hours ago
    I hope @goldenglobes thinks of #FirstTheyKilledMyFather come nomination time. It deserves to be recognized!

    Sarah Targaryen‏ @SarahPrimate 12h12 hours ago
    I love films that I can learn from, tug my heart-strings and tackle serious subjects. #FirstTheyKilledMyFather has all of that. Well done!

    Brody Nolan @thisredheadkid 13h13 hours ago
    Angelina has done it again y'all. #FirstTheyKilledMyFather needs to be seen by everyone. Harrowing, but wonderfully told @netflix

  2. First They Killed My Father: Angelina Jolie does it again
    4/5 Stars

    It’s not as if Angelina Jolie hasn’t proved her worth as a writer-director before now. Following on from the Bosnian war drama In the Land of Blood and Honey, and Unbroken’s harrowing account of life in a second World War prisoner-of-war camp, Jolie’s fourth narrative feature,confirms her as an exquisite craftswoman and an artist capable of tackling geopolitical complexities.

    First They Killed My Father, the official Cambodian selection for the Academy Awards, is based on the memoir of the same name by Loung Ung, whom Jolie befriended in 2002 after the actor became a goodwill ambassador for the UN.

    Ung (as essayed by the remarkable Sareum Srey Moch) is the five-year-old daughter of a Cambodian government official (a nuanced Phoeung Kompheak). As the Khmer Rouge’s campaign of genocide begins, Ung and her family are forced to flee Phnom Penh and toil in the fields, where zealous overseers bark slogans: “There will be no banking, no trading and no private property.”

    Jolie stays entirely focused on her young heroine save for an archival overture featuring Richard Nixon. Ung has no real knowledge of the outside world. Her experiences are repetitive, brutal and tempered by naivety: hard labour, surviving on morsels and thin gruel, and finally the dissolution of her family. As the overseers have it: “Angkar is your mother and your father.”

    Ironically, once she is conscripted as a child soldier and trained to fight (presumably against PRK communists in the civil war), her diet and living conditions improve.

    Her short, horrific military career eventually brings her into a forest where, in a virtuoso sequence, she gingerly inches forward while landmines explode everyone around her into pieces.

    Against these harrowing details, Jolie and director of photography Anthony Dod Mantle (Slumdog Millionaire, Antichrist) have crafted a paradoxically balmy, handsome film.

    This is both a personal and political project for the director; her 16-year-old Cambodian-born son, Maddox Jolie-Pitt, served as an executive producer.

    Forty years on and the Cambodian genocide has seldom been depicted on film. The Killing Fields was a notable exception but even that exceptional project pi
    voted around Sam Waterson’s American journalist. Jolie has the clout and integrity to tell the story from a Cambodian perspective. Her ambitions and conviction are matched by an authenticity – a Khmer-speaking cast, hundreds on non-CGI extras – that can’t be manufactured. Sadly the film’s gravitas and subject matter was always likely to sink it at the box office. It has instead made its way to video on demand. A coup for Netflix, of course, but a loss for the theatrical circuit.

  3. Martin Eriksson @erikssonmaartin 56m56 minutes ago
    Angelina Jolie gives us her strongest film so far with FIRST THEY KILLED MY FATHER . Gripande depiction of the Khmer revolution / ...

    Babette‏ @babetteh 13m13 minutes ago
    First They Killed My Father is one of the best and most poignant things I have ever watched. Completely recommend it

    f a n t a s m a‏ @EhReine 4m4 minutes ago
    the movie First They Killed My Father is really the kind that makes you cry from beginning to end

    Lane No @LaneeBez 39m39 minutes ago
    @ NetflixBrasil your beautiful, I finished watching " First they killed my father " and I'm just the destruction.

    c‏ @ rinavatt 46m46 minutes ago44 minutes ago 46m46 minutes ago
    Just finished watching First They Killed My Father and I'm just like ☹️☹️😭😭

    Arifah @arifaaaah 1h1 hour ago
    So weird to be watching first they killed my father knowing that my parents were actually there and survived those times

    Haralan Dobrev‏ @hkdobrev 1h1 hour ago
    "First they killed my father" movie from Angelina Jolie and Loung Ung was a humbling experience. It's now on Netflix

    BD‏ @Boluu_D 2h2 hours ago
    I just finished "First they killed my father", such an excellent movie.

    Cuba @kiiibaka 2h2 hours ago
    LRT pls watch First They Killed My Father 🙏🏽 great movie about the culture and history of my people and everything my parents went through🇰🇭

    Júlia Mariano @JuliaGavillan 2h2 hours ago
    In First They Killed My Father , Angelina Jolie brings delicacy to film about Cambodia. Review:https: //

    Shabbir Kabir @myfotodiary 2h2 hours ago
    superb movie made by @joliefans Angelina Jolie First They Killed My Father | Netflix
    bob‏ @perl_greyhound 3h3 hours ago
    @UngLoung wow just watched "First They Killed My Father". Very powerful, thank you for sharing your story. It needs to be told over and over

    Lanette Ware‏ @workitware 3h3 hours ago
    ‘First They Killed My Father’ will leave you weeping a better person for it. #oscar #thursdaythoughts … via @variety

    Stefano De La Cuesta @THE_Stefano_DLC 3h3 hours ago
    I hope when FIRST THEY KILLED MY FATHER gets a (deserved) Oscar nod, it opens up re-evaluation of Angelina Jolie’s underrated BY THE SEA.

  4. CulturalArtsCenterMC‏ @MC_CulturalArts 3h3 hours ago
    First They Killed My Father, a film by Angelina Jolie 10/19-10/20 Panel Discussion Reception & Film Screening Info @

  5. fourthwardtee‏ @fourthwardtee 4h4 hours ago
    Angelina Jolie deserve awards 4 "First They Killed My Father" on Netflix and also the young actress who play the little girl in the story👏👏

    Jenny Marie 🎶 🇺🇸 🎭 @JennyHatch 4h4 hours ago
    Movie Review: First they killed my father


  6. Loung Ung‏Verified account @UngLoung 5h5 hours ago
    Loung Ung Retweeted Panh Rithy
    Producer extraordinaire of First They Killed My Father, mentor and kindred spirit brother to me.

  7. Loung Ung‏Verified account @UngLoung 5h5 hours ago
    “Good friends are like stars. You don't always see them, but you know they're always there.” ~ Christy Evans

    Jennifer Jennings‏ @jennyjennings41 3h3 hours ago
    Replying to @UngLoung
    You and Angelina are lucky to be such goods friends. Every friends should have a relationship like the 2 of you 😊

  8. Anne Thompson‏Verified account @akstanwyck 10m10 minutes ago
    Replying to @woahx31 @OscarPredictor
    I have 5 frontrunners including Foxtrot, A Fantastic Woman, In the Fade, First They Killed My Father and The Square....

  9. Itami‏ @AmsAmethyst 7m7 minutes ago
    I wanna thank @angelajolie for directing “First They Killed My Father” 😭😭

    Angelica 🍯‏ @loveangelicakay 3m3 minutes ago
    first they killed my father is a really good movie

    Señorita Reis‏ @MsReisWLTeacher 5h5 hours ago
    Just finished Angelina Jolie's movie, First They Killed My Father. Why aren't more people talking about this movie?

    Mark Garcia Dayrit‏ @imarkgarcia 5h5 hours ago
    "One should remember so that others may never forget" — watching First They Killed My Father

    AJ7773108‏ @aaronjolley2005 9h9 hours ago
    Anyone out there that's "feeling the bern" should immediately watch a Netflix special called "First, they killed my father." GREAT show


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