FIRST THEY KILLED MY FATHER
Director: Angelina Jolie
Written by: Loung Ung, Angelina Jolie based on Loung Ung’s book
Cast: Kompheak Phoeung, Soceata Sveng, Dara Heng, Chenda Run, Kimhak Mun, Sreyneang Oun, Sothea Khoun, Nika Sarum, Nita Sarun, Sreymoch Sareum
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 9/14/17
Opens: September 15, 2017
Barry Goldwater, a (thanksfully) unsuccessful candidate for the U.S. presidency, once justified his ultra-conservative positions with the statement “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice…and moderation in defense of justice is no virtue.” Given his hostility to communist regimes such as we found in the Soviet Union and China, the statement is ironic. An extreme system of government, Communism, or collectivism if you want to call it that, does not work. It did not work in the USSR and China, it does not work in North Korea where the average yearly income is $1500, and is does not work in Cuba, where a typical doctor’s salary is $75 a month. Nor did, fascism, another extremist ideological disease, work in Spain and Portugal. Extreme solutions not only give way to blowback, but until they do, the ordinary people under extremist governments are miserable.
Nowhere else in Asia does this idea become as true as in Cambodia, where the government under Pol Pot executed intellectuals (defined as anyone who wore glasses), did likewise to Cambodians who had worked for the previous government, and emptied out the cities to provide for what it considered a purer way of life. The fratricidal treatment of ordinary Cambodian people is brought brilliantly to life by director Angelina Jolie, whose accomplishments include a praiseworthy direction of child actors and a remarkably authentic-looking series of explosions, beatings, firepower, and the burning down of an entire village during an invasion of Cambodia by Vietnam.
No mention is made of Tricky Dick Nixon’s secret bombing of Cambodia allegedly because the U.S. believed that the Vietnamese army was making incursions, the 2.7 million tons of bombs just another excuse for the extremists, the Khmer Rouge who called themselves Angkans, to uproot the cities which they considered bourgeois, pro-French and entirely corrupt.
The picture is photographed by Anthony Dod Mantle on location in Battambang, Cambodia and treated as a memoir of the revolution by a child, Loung Ung, via an in-depth performance by Sareum Srey Moch. Sareum’s face reflects her torment through tears, shouts, a look of longing for her family particularly after her father played by Phoeung Kompheak is executed by two Khmer Rouge. Among the most dramatic scenes is one showing the mass exodus of people from cities, principally from the capital of Phnom Penh, a scene that could remind us of similar tragic departures such as the forced uprooting of Jews during the Holocaust and the recent, seemingly endless journeys of millions of people from warfare in the Middle East, particularly Syria. Soldiers leading the march had assured the people that they could return to the city in three days, stating that the Americans were about to bomb the capital. Some leave by pickup truck, others plod with oxen. The people are told that there are no longer rich or poor, and that all should wear the same attire, encouraging everyone to use the juice of berries to make their clothing the same color.
Soon enough the subjects realize that there may be no turning back, yet the youths shout slogans of the Khmer Rouge, principally to throw up the Vietnamese invaders. While there is no discussion of why Vietnam invaded to overthrow the Pol Pot government, the truth is that they considered the Khmer Rouge to be allied with China. Vietnam’s fear of Chinese encirclement makes for one of the century’s great political ironies: the U.S. had invaded Vietnam because of our fear that a unified communist government would be a natural ally of China. The truth turned out to be the opposite: Vietnam traditionally feared its much larger neighbor.
Flashbacks are used minimally, contrasting the colorful folk dances of Cambodian women under the previous regime with the misery of families under the Khmers.
Angelina Jolie has her heart in the right place, as shown as well by taking part in international charity projects centering on the plight of refugees, and her insight into national conflict by her “In the Land of Blood and Honey” about the Bosnian war and “Unbroken,” about an Olympian who spent 47 days on a raft during World War 2 until captured and sent to a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp.
When Hitler was asked whether the world would condemn him for decades for the Holocaust, he remarked that “nobody remembers the genocide of Armenians. Jolie’s film serves to remind us, or in the case of presumably large numbers of Americans who never heard of Cambodia, that evil exists among people in high levels of government. We would all well to view her film as a reminder that politicians on the highest level can be guilty of the most atrocious behavior, involving lies, rationalizations, and now in the age of nuclear energy, a capability of annihilating the world.
The paperback memoir is available for ten bucks from Amazon. The film is in Cambodian with a little Vietnamese, English subtitles. The film is featured at Telluride and Toronto film festivals.
Unrated. 136 minutes. © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics OnlineComments, readers? Agree? Disagree? Why?
Story – A-
Acting – A-
Technical – A
Overall – A-