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First They Killed My Father

First They Killed My Father (Khmer: មុនដំបូងខ្មែរក្រហមសម្លាប់ប៉ារបស់ខ្ញុំ) is a 2017 Cambodian-American film starring the very young but outstanding Sareum Srey Moch. Directed by Angelina Jolie and based on Loung Ung's memoir, the film is in Khmer with a little French, English, and Vietnamese. One of its producers is Rithy Panh, whose documentaries I've tried hard to track down (if anyone knows how I might find them, do let me know).

First They Killed My Father is a war movie with a five-year-old protagonist. Centered on a child, the film could be placed in a subcategory of the genre that includes Roberto Rossellini's Germany, Year Zero (1948) and Oliver Stone's 1993 film Heaven and Earth, based on Le Ly Hayslip's unforgettable memoir. Put differently, it shouldn't be grouped with Hollywood blockbusters in which the "heroes" are white Americans "wasting" or "exterminating" the "other" (the "other" being the dehumanized and typically faceless or clone-like objects pictured as pseudospecies to appeal to the inhuman side of certain audiences) be they black as in Black Hawk Down (2001), yellow as in most 60s/70s films about the Vietnam War (the American War if you're Vietnamese), or brown as in American Sniper (2014). Or green for extraterrestrial aliens and bruise-colored if the "other" is a mob of zombiesanother genre that's extremely popular and, some say, the modern-day allegorical depiction of Islamic terrorists, or the Muslim as "other" in general.

Loung Ung is five years old when the Khmer Rouge stream into Phnom Penh and force her family to flee. Relatives won't accept them, fearing reprisal from the regime should they find out Loung's father was a government employee, and so the Ungs carry on down the road with the weary displaced masses. Eventually they're forced to work in a labor camp that produces food for soldiers on the front lines. In spite of the camp's purpose, those being held there are given almost nothing to eat. Some starve, while others are beaten for filching something as small as a bean.

What's remarkable about First They Killed My Father is how it's told. We are reminded again and again that what we're seeing is what Loung is seeing, or what the real-life Loung remembers from the actual experience. The camera repeatedly returns to her eyes to tell us that it is simultaneously giving us her eyes. In this way the film fosters empathy for a human being who seldom makes an appearance in Western cinema. Not just a child in a war. Not just a girl. But a Cambodian in the years of Khmer brutality following the dropping of about 2.7 million tons of bombs by the Americans (a million tons more than what it dumped on Japan during WWII; that's including Hiroshima and Nagasaki).

The Khmer Rouge are the inhuman "other" here, and it could be argued that Loung is a human "other" from the point of view of Western cinema, considering how the big audiences are on many levels far away from the Cambodia of the 70s/80s (though Loung can represent any child around the world who is tied, eyes open, to a war machine). The Vietnamese army, which provides basic support to the group of Cambodian refugees Loung crosses the border with, are given a small but much more human role compared to how they're often portrayed in American war movies. As for the Americans, the film is book-ended, somewhat awkwardly, by what are essentially notes about their connection to the conflict. Unsurprisingly, a song by The Rolling Stones kicks off the movie, played over a montage of the war in Vietnam and then the Americans fleeing in their choppers. That part is short, and intentionally so; this time we're not going to get the white-male-dominated narrative.

The film's weakness might be that it doesn't allow for a broader understanding of the conflict, its causes, its transformations, nor really most of its players. There is no attempt at forgiveness or reconciliation, as in Le Ly Hayslip's memoir. The Khmer Rouge are flat characters here, barely human, if at all. Perhaps it's too soon for forgiveness and reconciliation. Or these acts aren't compatible with this form? After all, it still comes off as an American film. I understand that Angelina Jolie has a strong connection with Cambodia, and that she involved Cambodians in the film's making. Nonetheless, I look forward to a time when Cambodians can tell their own stories and on their own, without direct or, if possible, any American involvement, but also hopefully with an American interest to see and hear them and, even more hopefully, with their compassion roused.

As an Aside

I watched Angelina Jolie's Unbroken (written by the Cohen brothers) when it came out in 2014. This is an American war film about the American Olympian (and army officer) Louis Zamperini, who survived for nearly fifty days in a raft after his bomber crashed during WWII. Captured by the Japanese, he's sent to a POW camp in the prefecture of Niigata, along Japan's west coast. My wife is from Niigata, specifically the port town of Naoetsu, where the ferry will take you to Sado Island. And so I did some sleuthing online to see where the POW camp was in relation to the house my wife had grown up in. Turns out it was only three or four blocks away, a five-minute walk. This really surprised me, as she'd never mentioned it before. More surprising, though, was her reaction when I brought it up. Sincere anger. She'd never known such a place had operated in her home neighborhood. She was angry no one had told her, and that the fact had been wiped away for her, for everyone. She couldn't blame her parents, we realized later. We asked them about the camp during a visit in the summer. They'd grown up around there too. And maybe, since they'd been born shortly after the war, they might have seen remnants of the camp or caught wind of stories about it from their older relatives. Nope. They'd never heard a thing about it either. These days there's a small memorial nearby, and a 7-Eleven.

Angelina Jolie and Loung Ung


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