Starring: Sareum Srey Moch, Phoeung Kompheak, Sveng Socheata
Director: Angelina Jolie
Running Time: 136 mins
First They Killed My Father: A Daughter Of Cambodia Remembers is an American/Cambodian film about the true story of Loung Ung, a young girl whose family fell victim to the horrific atrocities committed by the brutal Khmer Rouge in Cambodia during the 1970s.
This is one of the most fascinating films I’ve ever watched, simply because it dives so deep into a period of history that never really gets the same attention on the big screen as some of its more well-known European counterparts. It’s not quite on the level of the harrowing The Killing Fields, but that doesn’t mean that First They Killed My Father isn’t a brutal and heavy-going drama, and one that will definitely have you hooked from beginning to end.
For me, this film needs to be on the list of ‘necessary viewing’, up there with the likes of Schindler’s List. That’s why I first want to quash any fears you might have about diving in and watching this movie. Firstly, it’s all in Khmer language – something that may seem daunting at first, but with some brilliantly-written subtitles, it adds to the immersion of the viewing experience, and as a result heightens the impact of the film as a whole.
Secondly, it’s 136 minutes long. That’s not quite as enormous as Schindler’s List’s 195 minutes, but it’s still long, particularly given that this film is a very slow and quiet watch. However, it’s two and a quarter hours that will absolutely fly by, simply because it’s such a well-directed film that’s patiently paced from start to finish, but in doing so makes for a far more intense and heavy-going watch.
So, don’t be daunted by anything about this film, because it really shouldn’t be missed for any reason, simply because the reward of such a truly riveting watch is so great at the end of its 136 minutes.
Now, this film is inevitably going to face comparison with The Killing Fields, given that it focuses on the same period of history in the Cambodian genocide of the mid-1970s. For me, First They Killed My Father isn’t quite as good, simply because The Killing Fields is so unrelentingly harrowing in its depiction of the history, however what this film does so well is give you an immersive, insightful and well-rounded look deep into the lives of the people who were worst affected by the genocide: the normal working people of Cambodia.
From start to finish, the film is a terrifying account of how normal people’s lives can be so utterly destroyed by political fanatics winning a revolution, as it focuses on one family who fall from a fairly high standing in society to being thrown into work camps like dogs, with no rights or freedom in any way, and are then forced to suffer the consequences simply because of the threats of the brutal Khmer Rouge.
And the thing that makes it all the more scary: it’s a 100% true story. The film’s screenplay is written by Loung Ung, a modern human rights activist whose experience of the Killing Fields as a young girl is portrayed here. Of course artistic licence is taken from time to time by director Angelina Jolie to keep the film at 136 minutes, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a respectful and true account of a devastating history.
Of course, having the whole history seen through the eyes of a child adds a whole other level to the story. In similar fashion to the harrowing Beasts Of No Nation, First They Killed My Father is as much of an account of the loss of innocence in times of strife as it is historical fact, and that makes it all the more riveting simply because you can really relate to and understand the predicament of this little girl, with barely an understanding of any of the political background to her newfound poverty, and yet must suffer the consequences despite being a completely innocent party.
On the whole, First They Killed My Father is an excellent film, but there are a couple of issues that I do still hold with it. For one, whilst it’s directed beautifully by Angelina Jolie throughout, it often feels a little too polished and modern for its own good. The content of the story is distinctly gritty and heavy-going, but there are times that I felt a little too much like I was watching a Hollywood movie rather than a historical account like The Killing Fields, something that occasionally took away from the earthy devastation of the story at hand.
Also, there are times that the film feels a little lacking in truly harrowing drama. There are a few unbelievably heartbreaking scenes that will push you close to tears, but for the majority of the film, I didn’t feel as emotionally exhuasted as I wanted to be, as the film doesn’t quite manage to push through that last layer of emotion to really tug at your heartstrings at every moment.
With all that said, however, this is still a riveting, intense and unmissable film. It tells a truly fascinating history that definitely needs to be learned about, whilst it also moves along at a patient and respectful pace throughout that makes for an even more intoxicating watch. It’s unfortunately not perfect, and isn’t quite on the level of The Killing Fields or Schindler’s List, but it is still a truly excellent historical drama, and that’s why I’m giving it a 7.7.