Telluride 44: Angelina Jolie and “First They Killed My Father”

“First They Killed My Father”, directed by Angelina Jolie, is now showing on Netflix. As director, Jolie brings sensitivity and vivid images to the true story of a family arrested by Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in the 1970s.

The film is based on the memoir by Loung Ung who was a girl during that tragic time. She said that “From 1975 to 1979—through execution, starvation, disease, and forced labor—the Khmer Rouge systematically killed an estimated two million Cambodians, almost a fourth of the country’s population.” Ung and Jolie collaborated on the screenplay.

“First They Killed My Father”

Young Loung (Sareum Srey Moch) lives a comfortable life in the city of Phnom Penh with her parents and siblings where her father is a government official. The family dances happily to modern music. Jolie shows her experience with children with casual details like dripped fruit on a girl’s dress that add to the realism of the film.

After the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot take control of Cambodia, they force the evacuation of the citizens of Phnom Penh to the countryside for forced labor.

Jolie keeps the film on the point of view of Loung. Sareum Srey Moch has an expressive face conveying the girl’s incomprehension and shock as her life is painfully disrupted. Loung’s father is arrested by the authorities and she is separated from her siblings.

“First They Killed My Father”

The children are forced into exhausting work such as carrying buckets on poles. Jolie stages intense scenes conveying the harrowing life under the Khmer Rouge. A dead body is seen floating in the water during the children’s labor. Blood is swept up in a hospital.

The photography shows the natural beauty of Cambodia, where Jolie shot the film. But this beauty can hide something ominous, like deadly land mines throughout an area Loung and other prisoners attempt to pass in a tense sequence.

“First They Killed My Father”

After the screening at the Telluride Film Festival, Angelina Jolie and Loung Ung had a heartfelt conversation on Cambodia. Jolie said that while filming “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” in Cambodia, she bought a $2 book on a street corner, Loung Ung’s memoir.

Jolie found Cambodia “extraordinary”. She became a Special Envoy for the UN and met Ung. Jolie told her she wanted to adopt a child and asked her “Could I adopt? She would abide by Ung’s decision. She said Ung’s response and the adoption of her son Maddox from Cambodia “changed my life.” Jolie spoke with Ung on making a film of her memoir, but wanted to wait “until Maddox is ready” to understand. Maddox is listed as executive producer.

Angelina Jolie at Telluride (c) Ed Scheid

Ung spoke with Jolie about the “incredible beauty” of “my Cambodia”, “very green” which is reflected in the film.

Jolie thought that with a young girl as the focal character, she would have to move the camera away from the girl to show her point of view. The performance of her young lead actress was so effective that she kept the camera on her “more than anticipated”.

Angelina Jolie and Loung Ung at Telluride (c) Ed Scheid

Jolie said that with all the children appearing in the film, the “crew had to be good at games” and be “goofballs”.

On a more serious side of the filming, Jolie said that there was therapy as well as a spirit house with incense on the set to help with PTSD from survivors of the Khmer Rouge.

The film had a premiere in Cambodia. Jolie said she hopes her film will help build up the future of Cambodian cinema. Ung and Jolie spoke about the Cambodians collectively not being vengeful.

Ung married a man from Cleveland. She said that because of the “generosity of America”, they own 3 restaurants and 2 microbrews there.

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