"Develop a revolutionary mind set."
I’m sure this has been said before but the way Netflix allows certain movies to not only reach a much wider audience than they would otherwise but also supply said film with the resources that allow it to fulfil its intended vision anyway really is commendable. Granted it’s disappointing that we can’t see these movies in cinemas but it’s hard to deny that they get so much more exposure through this medium, particularly when it’s a film as important as Angelina Jolie’s ‘First The Killed My Father’.
Loung Ung is 5 years old when the Khmer Rouge assumes power over Cambodia in 1975. They soon begin a four-year reign of terror and genocide in which nearly 2 million Cambodians die. Forced from her family's home in Phnom Penh, Ung is trained as a child soldier while her six siblings are sent to labor camps.
As a director, Jolie has always showed more potential than her films have. Her previous directorial efforts ‘In the Land of Blood and Honey’, ‘Unbroken’ and ‘By the Sea’ all displayed a high level of craftsmanship but lacked the nuance or depth to become anything more meaningful. However, ‘First They Killed My Father’ is Jolie’s first film that feels worthy of her potential as a director. The story is a powerful and important one that speaks volumes about an era of history as well as being deeply humanistic.
What Jolie does so brilliantly in this film is portray a national tragedy through the eyes of a child. The perspective allows her to distil the historical events to their most provocative and emotionally resonant. But at the same time such a point of view allows you to play looser with the details that might be a requirement in other historical dramas. As an audience we are attuned to the idea that a child might not process everything around them, or if they do it’s not in the same way we would as an adult. It allows Jolie to employ some unique ways of presenting the unfolding horror. She takes a page out of Spielberg’s book and opts to keep the camera height at the same level as her protagonist, placing the audience firmly within her point of view. Her frequent use of handheld camera also helps to evoke this sense of unease that even permeates the quieter moments of the movie. There’s also a lot to be said about how often Jolie places her protagonist within forefront of the frame as the action is taking place, being sure to contrast the unfolding horror with her innocence.
It helps that the movie is structured more like a survival story than a typical historical drama. It becomes less about the bigger picture and more about a family struggling to survive from one day to another. It keeps to this mindset for the most part which that the emotionally powerful moments feel all the more impactful. But makes it excel even more is how due to the contrast with the restrained approach Jolie takes to presenting their version of normalcy, when things do reach greater levels of drama the film doesn’t need to employ any manipulative tactics to make it feel resonant, it already lands where it should.
There are a few more clichéd moments such as oversaturating the colour palette for flashbacks. It’s an effective tool but it does grow tiresome and seems overly melodramatic when the rest of the film takes such a realistic approach. Certain scenes also seem to drift awkwardly between taking an intimate and detached approach to conveying the story. It’s only very rarely but it creates this slight tonal shift that makes the movie feel at conflict with itself. But as I said earlier, the advantage is that ‘First They Killed My Father’ makes it obvious from the outset that it is not interested in capturing the larger implications of these events. It wants to convey what it felt like to experience Pot’s regime from the ground level and on that front it is unrelenting. There is a slight political context in which the film acknowledges how U.S bombings against a neutral country created an environment of paranoia and chaos. But aside from that it focuses on the more intimate and emotionally impactful side of the story that undoubtedly leaves its mark. Even when the film reaches its end the audience is made well aware of how the damage can never truly be undone.
Jolie’s strongest effort yet as a director, ‘First They Killed My Father’ is an emotionally resonant, impeccably crafted work that puts the viewer straight into another era of history.